The State of the Progressive Union 2013

Richard Eskow

A State of the Union address is always important. It’s the president’s opportunity to tell the nation what he or she plans to do in the coming year. But what the history books say about this year’s speech may also depend what we do in the weeks and months to come.

In other words, this time it really could be about you.

But first, the speech: Some heard a progressive clarion call. A more accurate description might be: Big Ideas, Small Proposals. Or Big Themes, Little Actions. In the end President Obama’s address was a progressive painting stretched to fit a conservative frame. It was still attractive, but the portrait’s subject was barely recognizable.

Although the speech got some rave reviews, not everyone was impressed. Politico’s Glenn Thrush called the speech “vintage” and “retro,” scorning what he called “Democrat Classic” as if it were a granny dress at a Debutante’s Ball. That’s Washington for you: statecraft as fashion mistake. And yet, based on the poll numbers, the president’s never been more in vogue. (There were more substantive critiques on the left.)

The speech’s poetry was beautiful but its prose, as defined by concrete proposals, never took flight. That’s the sort of thing that can uplift the progressive movement, while at the same time depriving it of the oxygen needed for action. And if there’s one thing we need right now, it’s action.

Pictures and Frames

Don’t get me wrong. It was as good a speech as we could possibly expect, once we accept the limits of “centrist” liberalism. But we shouldn’t accept those limits. The country deserves visions that are bigger, more imaginative, and at the same time more practical. The president seemed poised to do that a number of times.

At his best, Barack Obama can make the case for economic justice, education, and government’s role in society more effectively than any major politician in recent memory – even Bill Clinton. That’s a valuable service after so many years of anti-government extremism.

But the president once again wrapped his arguments in the faded newsprint of austerity economics. He embraced a milquetoast tax proposal whose rates are better than today’s, but are still not fair enough – or high enough at the upper end. (Billionaires shouldn’t “pay a lower rate than their secretaries”? That’s it?)

The president also told middle-class Americans who have endured decades of wage stagnation, years of crisis-level unemployment, and tax rates far higher than a hedge fund managers’ that the country needs “everybody doing their fair share” – and for what?

To reduce budget deficits.

Out of Time

Nothing in this speech will trouble the wealthy and powerful. It’s well within the Clintonian mold of progressive rhetoric and center/right policy, a pattern that’s turning the Democratic Party into the liberal wing of a corporate-dominated system. His occasional tone of pseudo-centrism was the president’s only real fashion mistake.  It’s as 1990′s as flannel shirts – and just as uncomfortable.

Pace Glenn Thrush, this two-decades-old Third Way-ism more “New Coke” than “Coke Classic.” It’s turning the Democratic Party away from its most popular ideas, and both the party and country are suffering the consequences.

Some of the president’s supporters say that’s the best he can do in his position. I don’t agree. But either way, it’s important to remember: We’re not in his position. That’s why independent movements are important.

Liberalism Lite

The day after the speech I got a phone call from a very smart friend in the media. He’d just heard a well-placed White House advisor say that senior administration officials are still committed to reducing Social Security benefits by implementing the “chained CPI” benefit cut.

“They genuinely believe it’s good policy,” he said with dismay. I knew that already, from off-the-record discussions of my own.

It’s important to remember that this administration, whatever its other virtues, appears to genuinely believe in economic ideas that would have made them moderate Republicans in the Eisenhower-Rockefeller-Lindsay mold at any other moment in modern history – and sometimes well to the right of that.

Those sincere beliefs were reflected in what the president did – and didn’t – say last night.

Moving the Goalposts

“We are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances,” said the president. “Now we need to finish the job.”

That’s wrong. Most top economists – the conservative ideologues excepted- think we need to invest immediately, to rescue our economy and then reduce the deficit more effectively.

Real Work, Real People

When the White House backed up the speech with charts, the first one showed private-sector job growth. It didn’t show job losses in the public sector. Those jobs – teachers, nurses, firefighters, cops, and the like – are just as real and valuable as corporate ones.

We shouldn’t treat the work of these everyday heroes like eccentric uncles to be hidden in the basement when company comes. We should celebrate both their labor and their contribution to the economy.

If They Come, We Will Build It

The president’s infrastructure proposals, while laudable, will probably still wind up being smaller than the $286 billion highway bill enacted under George W. Bush.

Bush’s bill was all spending – no tax cuts branded as “stimulus” – and was passed even without today’s urgent need for jobs and rebuilding.

Cogs in the Machine?

The president’s program for higher education was very limited, and included school ranking programs that could wind up being used to cut student aid. And his utilitarian endorsement of vocational/technical education was downright Romney-esque.

(Romney’s platform touted “local career and technical educational programs … supported by leaders in industry,” adding: “It is time to get back to basics and to higher education programs directly related to job opportunities.”)

Technical education can be a pathway out of poverty. It should be available for those who want it. But emphasizing only tech jobs, while implicitly dismissing liberal education? That’s unworthy of a progressive vision in which education makes us wiser human beings, not just more useful corporate resources.

Things Unsaid

The president didn’t say that:

Every dollar spent on a government program creates more than a dollar for the overall economy – especially in tough time like these. (Economists call it the “fiscal multiplier.”)

Investors are essentially paying our government to borrow money. There will be no better time to borrow.

The best way to reduce deficits in the long run is by investing in growth in the short run. Even the conservative International Monetary Fund thinks so.

The deficit is already well below what it was when the austerity hysteria began. (The president could have – and should have – declared victory over it last night.)

Those spending cuts the president boasted about last night have already hurt our economy. Enacting more of them will lead to more damage and more lost jobs.

The president said that “our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children.” But Social Security is forbidden by law from drawing on the general funds that would be used for those investments.

From American Banker: “Obama urged passage of a mortgage refinancing bill, but otherwise made no mention of banking or financial services, to the relief of some industry executives.” Exactly.

When the president said, “My administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits,” he did not explain that most of that fuel will be sold to other nations, leaving us in the same mess we’re in today. And while he said he’d take executive action on climate change if necessary, he didn’t say when.

In a awkwardly-phrased portion of the speech, the president promised mortgage refinancing that would “give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today’s rates.” (Every single one of them?) He did not propose that underwater homeowners receive a much-deserved reduction in the amount they owe – a move that would boost jobs and growth.

When he said “the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population,” the president didn’t explain that we’d have no deficit problem at all if we had publicly-financed health care and reined in runaway for-profit healthcare corporations. That’s what all other developed nations do – and they get better medical care.

And where was campaign finance reform? Without it we’ll never have a truly representative government again.

Defining Liberalism Down

You’d expect these kinds of omissions from a Republican, but not in a speech billed as “progressive.” The shadow of things unsaid fell across even its best moments. A minimum wage won’t mean quite as much, for example, for workers who can still lose their jobs, their homes, their health – even their lives – to under-regulated corporate predation. At this rate liberalism will continue to be defined down until it’s unrecognizable.

We can’t depend on anybody but ourselves to stop that. We can do it – but only if we organize, mobilize and tell Washington the country wants jobs, economic justice and growth.

The left should be defined by deeds, not words. And rhetoric shouldn’t inoculate progressives against action. Especially not now, with such great issues at stake.

State of Our Union

The battle over Social Security and Medicare will reshape our social contract. When we debate tax and education policies, or bank regulation, or corporate oversight, we’re deciding what kind of society we will leave for generations yet to come.

And let’s not forget: Activism works. To the extent that the president’s words and deeds have become more progressive, it’s because people took to the streets and spoke to our leaders with votes, emails and phone calls. But there’s more to be done. Much more.

It’s 2013 and the state of the progressive union is – well, that depends on us. The president said it well: “It remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

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