State of the Union Response: Right Direction, But Bolder Reforms Needed

WASHINGTON – President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night framed the right questions for what America’s working families need in today’s economy, but he stopped short of the bold reforms needed to undo the rigging of the economy to benefit the few, Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage said in his response today.

“Obama focused the speech about values and direction, not on programs,” he wrote in his article, published this morning on OurFuture.org. “This made the choices clear – and neatly closeted the reality that many of the programs are gestures, not near the scope needed to deal with the problem addressed.”

While President Obama offered several proposals that are vital for working-class people, Borosage wrote that “the real question is that posed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren: What happens when the rules are rigged to benefit the few? We may all play by the same set of rules but find that the deck has been stacked. Changing the rules requires taking on big money and entrenched interests – and here the president largely takes a pass.”

“Progressives should applaud the president’s combative populist message,” Borosage wrote. “But while the president frames the argument well, making this economy work for working people once more will take far bolder reforms” – and a populist progressive movement mobilized to press for those reforms.

The article, “President Obama Gets His Swagger Back: The Scope and Limits of His State of the Union Address,” is reprinted in full below and can also be accessed at http://ourfuture.org/20150121/president-obama-gets-his-swagger-back-the-scope-and-limits-of-the-sotu.

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President Obama has his swagger back. Ignoring the electoral rebuke of 2014, he claimed the growing economy as a mandate for his progressive agenda, delivering a State of the Union address bristling with veto threats and challenging the Congress to stand with working families.

The speech was designed to rouse Obama’s popular majority coalition against the Republican congressional majority. While it ended with a long, soaring peroration about “one America,” in Obama’s signature voice, the speech itself threw down a gauntlet at Republicans, inviting a debate about direction that will frame the 2016 election. It presented a president willing to compromise but ready to fight.

To that end, Obama focused the speech about values and direction, not on programs. This made the choices clear – and neatly closeted the reality that many of the programs are gestures, not near the scope needed to deal with the problem addressed.

“The era of big government is over” is over. President Obama defended activist government on the side of working people. There was no rhetorical tacking to the conservative winds, in contrast to Bill Clinton. Obama wants his administration to mark the end of the conservative era that began with Reagan and the beginning of a new era of reform.

His reforms are grounded in the center-left establishment consensus, now dubbed “middle-class economics.” The rhetoric echoes Clinton: “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules.” If she runs, Hillary will have no problem carrying this argument.

But the real question is that posed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren: What happens when the rules are rigged to benefit the few? We may all play by the same set of rules but find that the deck has been stacked. Changing the rules requires taking on big money and entrenched interests – and here the president largely takes a pass.

The Wage Initiative

The most popular part of the speech will surely be what the Economic Policy Institute dubs the president’s wage initiative. He calls for raising the minimum wage, pay equity, paid sick days, revival of overtime protections, tax credits for more affordable child care. These are vital reforms for low-wage workers; all enjoy support of two-thirds or more of the American people. If the Republican Congress blocks them, as seems likely, they can be driven forward in blue states and big cities, and by procurement reform at the national level.

Yet for wages to rise across the board, we need a full employment economy that makes workers, not jobs, scarce. We need to empower workers to organize unions and bargain collectively. And we need to reform perverse executive compensation policies that give corporate CEOs multimillion-dollar personal incentives to cook the books, ship jobs abroad, suppress wages, and plunder their own companies for short-term returns. The president heroically assumes that full employment is on its way. And while he mentions the need for unions, he does so wistfully: “We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice.” And the notion that more employers might “see beyond the next quarter’s returns” is but a forlorn hope.

Invest and Tax

The speech also makes a muscular case for public investment – in 21st-century infrastructure, in research and development, in new energy, in education and training to create a skilled workforce. (The need for an informed democratic citizenry goes unmentioned.) The president calls for making two years of community college free, and for lowering debt burdens for college students.

To pay for this, the president issues his most populist – and most popular – challenge:

”For far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They’ve riddled it with giveaways that the super rich don’t need, while denying a break to middle-class families who do.

..Let’s close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America. (APPLAUSE) Let’s use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home.

And let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college.”

This argument — on the need for public investment paid for by progressive tax reform – is vital to our country’s future. And it is politically potent – putting Republicans in the position of starving vital investments to protect tax breaks for the powerful. The president’s bold position should be applauded, even if the actual spending he calls for doesn’t come close to closing the growing investment needs.

The Missing New Foundation

President Obama claims a new foundation for the economy, based upon a revival of manufacturing, rising exports, energy independence, higher test scores and graduation rates, a reformed Wall Street.

But the claim is mocked by the reality. The president’s reforms that address the rigged rules and distorted structure of our economy are largely in place. Yet, trade deficits are back, with the deficit with China unprecedented in the annals of history. We haven’t regained the manufacturing jobs lost in the crash, much less those lost the decade before. The big banks are bigger and more concentrated than ever – still too big to fail, too big to jail and too big to manage. CEO pay continues to soar, while workers wages stagnate.

And in his call for renewing fast-track trade authority – to grease the skids for passing potential trade treaties with Asian and European countries – the president is doubling down on the failed policies of the past. Ironically, this is the one area where he will gain bipartisan support, with the leaders of both parties arrayed with multinational banks and corporations in support.

The president’s case for fast track was particularly disingenuous, a retread of the false promises of the past accords. “95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders.” No, 95 percent of the world’s population does; customers are people with money, and far more concentrated. “China wants to write the rules” in Asia. No, while Asian countries are imitating China’s model of trampling trade rules; they are threatened, not entranced, by their increasingly assertive giant neighbor. An agreement designed to make Vietnam an alternative source of low-cost labor for American corporations while protecting investors with their own private legal system is hardly a deal to “benefit American workers.” The claim that this administration has cracked down on currency and trade violations is risible.

Absent also from the speech is any discussion of limiting the role of big money in politics or cleaning up the corruption of Washington and the Congress. For a president once willing to challenge the Supreme Court to its face over Citizen’s United, the omission is telling. We’ll fight over climate change, raising the floor under workers, basic worker protections, investing in the future. But big money and the core structural rules stacked against working families aren’t yet on the agenda.

The Foreign Policy Vision

President Obama’s presentation of his foreign policy offered a similarly stark contrast between his vision and his policy. He has been the leading advocate for ending the war on terror, for removing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, for reasserting our values and protecting our Constitution in an age of terror. He makes a strong case for smart diplomacy rather than bluster and military adventure. His opening to Cuba, insistence on negotiations with Iran, and increasing caution in the face-off with Russia all exemplify his vision in action. His call once more to close Guantanamo in the face of congressional cowardice is admirable. He is the anti-Bush, with Hillary positioning herself to his right.

Yet at the same time, troops are returning to Iraq in the fight against ISIS. We remain engaged in Afghanistan. Drones and hit squads hunt terrorists in nations across the globe. The president has asserted unprecedented prerogatives to surveil, arrest, detain, even kill people – including citizens – on his own authority. His administration has protected intelligence officers who lie to Congress while hunting whistle blowers to expose the truth to Americans. Perhaps he can use the last two years to continue to bring his practice in line with his sensible vision.

Progressives should applaud the president’s combative populist message. We should challenge the Republican Congress that stands in the way. We should be pushing various parts of the wage initiative and the public investment agenda at the state and local level.

President Obama will end as the most liberal president since Nixon, if not Johnson. But while the president frames the argument well, making this economy work for working people once more will take far bolder reforms. His years may mark the beginning of a new era of progressive reform, but only if people in motion force the argument.

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CAF Urges President Obama to “Keep On Steppin'” With Executive Actions

CAF Co-Director Robert Borosage Calls On Obama To Take Action In Five Key Areas Beyond Immigration Reform

President Obama “would be wise to keep on steppin’” and ignore the protests from critics of his executive order last week on deportations of undocumented immigrants, Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, wrote in a column this morning on OurFuture.org.

“President Obama has already shown the way not only on immigration but with the historic agreement on climate with the Chinese (scorned as a ‘war on coal’ by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell) and his firm support for net neutrality,” Borosage wrote. Beyond immigration, he continues, “there are many critical areas where action is long overdue.”

Borosage lists five: restoring the right to vote to 3.9 million people who have served their time for felony convictions; signing a “good jobs executive order” that would favor living-wage employers in federal contracts; create “a bold Tennessee Valley Authority-sized jobs and green energy program for ‘coal country'”; normalize relations with Cuba; and prosecute at least one bank executive for continuing to engage in the kind of risky and fraudulent behavior that led to the 2008 financial crash.

“No doubt, they will elicit more outrage, wringing of hands, waving of fists from the Congress and the wingnuts,” Borosage wrote. “But as the president has already discovered with the China agreement and immigration orders, action frames the debate – and on these and many other issues, the majority of Americans agree with the president – and the base of his voters will be roused by his courage.”

The full statement, published on OurFuture.org, is below.

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The President’s historic executive action on immigration has been greeted with scripted Republican outrage, from threats to close the government (again), block all presidential appointees (what’s new?), and riots in the streets (see #coburnriots on twitter for gripping hour by hour reporting of the carnage). But threats of more obstruction are pretty empty from a Republican leadership that has waged a relentless scorched earth opposition to all things Obama from the start of his administration.

Instead of suing for peace, the president would be wise to keep on steppin’. President Obama has already shown the way not only on immigration but with the historic agreement on climate with the Chinese (scorned as a “war on coal” by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell) and his firm support for net neutrality. Writing in The Nation before the immigration action, publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel urged the president to “double down” and act boldly, both to make some progress and to frame debates that the country must have. The president has, as he said, has his pen and his phone, as well as the national microphone. There are many critical areas where action is long overdue. Here are some suggestions:

Restore the Vote: 3.9 million Americans are disenfranchised from felony convictions – mostly for non-violent drug offenses – even though they have paid their debt to society. A staggering 13 percent of all African-American men are prohibited from voting. Led by Attorney General Eric Holder, the administration has already taken long overdue measures to reduce sentences for drug offenders and to begin offering clemency to those sentenced to ridiculous terms. The president should issue a pardon to all those non-violent offenders who have served their sentences, removing their offense from the books. He should combine this with a call on all states to join in ending disenfranchisement for ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society. America is a nation of second chances. It is hard to believe that disenfranchisement would exist at all were it not for its racially disproportionate effects on people of color.

Reward Good Employers and Their Workers: The president should issue a Good Jobs Executive Order to leverage the $1 trillion in federal procurement to reward good employers. Give procurement preference to employers that pay a living wage, provide good benefits and allow their workers to organize and bargain collectively. Reward employers like Costco rather than Walmart that pays its workers so little that taxpayers are stuck with subsidizing their wages. The president has already acted to lift the minimum wage on federal contract workers. He should take the next step – which Demos estimates could put 21 million on the road to the middle class – and urge governors and mayors to follow in his course. At a time of record inequality and a declining middle class, it is long past time to put government on the side of workers and good employers rather than the exploiters.

Demand Action on Green Jobs: With the China deal on climate, the forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency action on carbon emissions, and his underappreciated fuel efficiency standards, the president has acted against the unsustainable fossil fuel economy. Now he should act boldly to demand action to embrace the jobs and growth that will come from leading the transition to renewable energy and the green industrial revolution. He should make green jobs the centerpiece of his State of the Union address. He should call for action for a bold Tennessee Valley Authority-sized jobs and green energy program for “coal country.” McConnell charges that the president is waging war on coal. The president should make it clear this is a choice between the unsustainable, dying economy of the past and a future that offers good jobs and new opportunities. He should complement this by convening mayors from both coasts to map out steps to meet the already rising seas and increasing superstorms. As Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, our decrepit and decaying infrastructure is in dire need of modernization.

Normalize Relations with Cuba: Foreign policy offers many opportunities for presidential action – cutting the deal with Iran to stem nuclear proliferation, acting boldly with Russia to guarantee Ukraine’s independence and unity and avoid a new Cold War, bringing the nation’s longest war in Afghanistan to an end. But there is no longer-lasting American folly than the failed, half-century long economic boycott and effort to isolate Cuba. The boycott has damaged the Cuban economy, but has bolstered support for the regime. It has damaged relations with our neighbors throughout Latin America, to the point where we are isolating ourselves. Congress has limited the president’s ability simply to end the boycott, but he can act to restore normal diplomatic relations, expand travel opportunities, lift private investment restrictions, and end the cap on remittances from Cuban Americans living in the states. He should hail Cuba for its courageous action against Ebola, and remove it from the State Department’s terrorist list. In April, the Seventh Summit of the America’s has insisted on Cuban attendance. The President should go to that meeting, having acted boldly to end a half century of folly.

Hold At Least One Bankster Accountable: Justice delayed is justice denied, and it is too late to prosecute many of the banksters whose excesses blew up the economy. But the president should use the occasion of Attorney General Eric Holder’s departure to put together a real task force to investigate and prosecute bankers who are recidivists, like those at Standard Chartered whose leaders apparently violated the settlement made with the Justice Department as it was signed. It is apparent that little has changed on Wall Street, and that agreements made with the Justice Department are being ignored in the greed for profit. The Justice Department should put all on notice: Violations of signed settlements will lead to prosecution not of the bank but of the bankers, and fines levied not against shareholders but against bankers’ personal fortunes. Just one perp walk would do much to sober up these serial offenders.

These represent only some of the actions the president should take. No doubt, they will elicit more outrage, wringing of hands, waving of fists from the Congress and the wingnuts. But as the president has already discovered with the China agreement and immigration orders, action frames the debate – and on these and many other issues, the majority of Americans agree with the president – and the base of his voters will be roused by his courage. Republican control of the Congress insures unending fights to stop bad things from happening. The president should act independently to move good things forward. Keep on steppin’, Mr. President.

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CAF Heralds President Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration

The Campaign for America’s Future fully supports the executive action on immigration that President Obama announced Thursday night, its co-directors, Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey, said in a joint statement.

Here is their full statement:

“President Barack Obama’s decision to waive the threat of deportation to upwards of five million undocumented immigrants and their families is a historic moment that moves America closer to its ideal of equal opportunity for all.

“Our inequality crisis is worsened by the exploitation of immigrant workers who toil without equal rights and fair compensation. The American economy will grow stronger, from the bottom up, once we end our two-tiered economic system and ensure that all workers have the same rights. Providing immigrant workers with legal status will boost their compensation and increase economic demand, growth which will even reduce long-term budget deficits. While comprehensive immigration reform legislation is still needed to fully address these persistent problems, today’s executive action is a major step forward that Republicans would be foolish to even try to roll back.

“The president is well within his legitimate authority to set deportation priorities with limited resources when implementing our immigration laws. If Republicans disagree with his policy, they can render the procedural dispute moot by passing their own legislation that lifts the 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, grants them a path to citizenship and allows them to fully participate in and grow the American economy. Last year, the Senate passed a similar measure with bipartisan support. Republicans now have the power and the responsibility to govern, not simply to complain. They should get about doing so.

“For years, Republicans put off doing what it is right for the immigrant community and the American economy, in order to pander to the anti-immigrant bigots who sully the conservative movement.

“Now, Republicans can step up to the challenge of governing, and stand up to the bigotry in their ranks. Or they can prove to immigrant families, which include millions of legal voters, that Republicans want them locked in a shadow economy rather than accord them the rights and respect they deserve.”

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