In a speech delivered at Knox College in Illinois, President Obama launched his final campaign: a campaign to revive the American Dream.
The speech, less eloquent and windier than the best of Obama, told Americans a clear story, and called on them to support a clear direction. The White House promises that this will be the beginning of a campaign, not a one-off statement for the record. Obama finally called out the “faction of Republicans” that stands in the way of progress.
We don’t know if this pledge will be fulfilled, or if the initiative will be swamped in the conflicting currents of budget negotiations, Republican obstruction and presidential concessions that will once more roil Washington in the fall. But the initiative has the potential of drawing clear distinctions with the Republican right and offering Americans a clear choice. Given that, it is worth understanding the scope – and the limits – of the president’s vision.
The Lost Garden
The president’s story begins with the fall from grace, reminding Americans of the lost era of prosperity after World War II – “when a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity.”
“This country offered you a basic bargain, a sense that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and decent benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement – and most of all, a chance to hand down a better life for your kids,” he said.
For the past three decades, however, “the engine began to stall…the bargain began to fray.” The result was growing inequality and a disappearing middle class: “So the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged.”
The Missing Enemy
What caused the fall? The president’s version is focused on “forces” as if they were acts of nature. “Technology…global competition.” He’s in passive voice. “It became harder for unions to fight for the middle class.”
Absent is the reality: Conservative policy choices devastated what made America special. Costly global military misadventures. Financial deregulation. Corporate dominated trade policies. Trickle-down fantasies. The unrelenting assault on workers and labor unions. Perverse executive compensation policies that gave CEOs million-dollar incentives to plunder their own companies. Ayn Rand’s delusions supplanting Adam Smith’s sober suspicion of business collusion to limit competition. Race-bait politics that closed the hand up for the impoverished.
It wasn’t technology and globalization that destroyed the middle class. It was wrong-headed policies and an increasingly corrupted politics. This isn’t incidental. As we’ve seen in the war on terror, without clearly naming the enemy, it becomes difficult to direct the forces.
We Are Coming Back
In the president’s story, America hit bottom in the financial collapse and recession. Now he argues we have “fought our way back.” This part of the speech – -where he details the accomplishments of the past years – is the least convincing.
Every president wants to boast of what has been achieved. But most Americans think the country is still in a recession – and with 22 million people still in need of full-time work, and with the jobs being offered having less pay, fewer benefits and less security than the jobs lost, they have every reason for that belief.
A Return to Virtue
The president then draws his distinction. It is time to return to policies that focus on the middle class, that build from the “middle out,” and turn away from the trickle-down policies of the past. It’s not enough to get government out of the way; government must act to strengthen the elements of the American dream: a good job, quality education, a home of your own, affordable health care, “ladders of opportunity” for the poor.
This is no longer a question of stimulus, or of short-term, stopgap programs – but a long-term strategy to revive the middle class, to make the American Dream real once more. He calls Americans to a new direction, not simply to a new budget debate.
This charge is vital. He follows with modest but sensible indications of his policy ideas. He makes the case for rebuilding our decrepit infrastructure, for investing in new energy, for investing in education from preschool to affordable college. He decries the “meat cleaver” of the sequester cuts and implicitly rejects austerity budgets, while still supporting a “balanced long-term plan” for getting our books in order.
What Old Ideas Need Be Discarded
President Obama directly calls out the mindless Republican obstruction that has blocked even bipartisan programs – such as investing in infrastructure – from going forward. He indicts those who think the answer is simply tearing down government.
He also calls on Democrats to change: “I will be saying to Democrats, we’ve got to question some of our old assumptions. We’ve got to be willing to redesign or get rid of programs that don’t work as well as they should.”
This is a favored trope of the New Democrats, often aimed at justifying cuts in Medicare and Social Security, or “ending welfare as we know it.” And it is here that the debate within the Democratic Party must begin. What are the “old assumptions” and “programs that don’t work” that have contributed to destroying the middle class?
At the top of the list would be the core agenda of Rubinomics, the Wall Street economics that has defined Democratic policies over the last decades. Trade policy by and for the corporations. Strong-dollar Fed policies by and for Wall Street. Catastrophic financial deregulation. Perverse executive compensation. Regressive tax reforms. Surrender in the war on unions. Prioritizing austerity over investment. Starving programs for the poor while squandering trillions on military misadventure abroad. Swimming in a corrupted money politics, embracing a revolving-door Washington culture.
The president’s story should be told with the actors involved. What made America special was a broad middle class, built by sensible policy, driven by a broad coalition. We’ve descended into Gilded-Age inequality because of a corporate funded ideological and political offensive, championed not just by the Reagan right but by the Wall Street Democrats. Turning this around isn’t a short-term, stop-gap measure. It requires a new direction, a new coalition, a willingness to clean out the corrupted stables, in order, in the president’s words, to “make this country work for working Americans again.”
The president has helped to frame this debate. But it will take an independent people’s movement if we are to displace the entrenched interests and deformed ideas that stand in the way.