Thursday, July 25, 2013

This Thing That Matters

[photos below from Galesburg Register-Mail]

On Wednesday President Obama returned to Knox College, eight years after he made his first important speech  as a U.S. Senator there, to speak again on the American economy.  He reminded his listeners in Galesburg that the trends damaging the middle class began before the Great Recession of 2009.   He'd talked about them at Knox in 2005: principally, structural income inequality.

"And so what happened was that the link between higher productivity and people’s wages and salaries was broken. It used to be that, as companies did better, as profits went higher, workers also got a better deal. And that started changing. So the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged."

The bubble that had obscured these trends burst in 2008, "And the decades-long erosion that had been taking place -- the erosion of middle-class security -- was suddenly laid bare for everybody to see."

Thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, he said--and the policies he fought for and got done, he implied--the U.S. has recovered from the Great Recession. ..."we’ve been able to clear away the rubble from the financial crisis. We started to lay a new foundation for stronger, more durable economic growth. And it's happening in our own personal lives as well, right? A lot of us tightened our belts, shed debt, maybe cut up a couple of credit cards, refocused on those things that really matter. 

As a country, we’ve recovered faster and gone further than most other advanced nations in the world. With new American revolutions in energy and technology and manufacturing and health care, we're actually poised to reverse the forces that battered the middle class for so long, and start building an economy where everyone who works hard can get ahead."

But income inequality continues. "We've got more work to do. Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top 1 percent. The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 percent since 2009. The average American earns less than he or she did in 1999."  

This growing inequality not just of result, inequality of opportunity -- this growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics. Because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what, businesses have fewer consumers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America -- that idea that if you work hard you can make it here."

And that’s why reversing these trends has to be Washington’s highest priority. (Applause.) It has to be Washington's highest priority. (Applause.) It’s certainly my highest priority. (Applause.) Unfortunately, over the past couple of years, in particular, Washington hasn’t just ignored this problem; too often, Washington has made things worse. (Applause.)

He outlined in deft strokes the obstructionism--past, present and possibly future--and named names: Republicans in the House.  

And that’s why, over the next several weeks, in towns across this country, I will be engaging the American people in this debate. (Applause.) I'll lay out my ideas for how we build on the cornerstones of what it means to be middle class in America, and what it takes to work your way into the middle class in America: Job security, with good wages and durable industries. A good education. A home to call your own. Affordable health care when you get sick. (Applause.) A secure retirement even if you’re not rich. Reducing poverty. Reducing inequality. Growing opportunity. That’s what we need. (Applause.) That’s what we need. That’s what we need right now. That’s what we need to be focused on. (Applause.) 

In fact this got sustained applause.  Then President Obama noted that "some of these ideas I’ve talked about before. Some of the ideas I offer will be new. Some will require Congress. Some I will pursue on my own." That last line also got real applause.

Earlier he noted "This moment does not require short-term thinking. It does not require having the same old stale debates. Our focus has to be on the basic economic issues that matter most to you, the people we represent. That’s what we have to spend our time on and our energy on and our focus on."  Now he completed the thought: " But the key is to break through the tendency in Washington to just bounce from crisis to crisis. What we need is not a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan; we need a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades. That has to be our project." 

He reassured the audience that "we’ll keep pressing on other key priorities," including... "We need to combat climate change. We’ve got to standing up for civil rights. We’ve got to stand up for women’s rights."  But he made a very wise and telling point that others have also made: 

"But if we don’t have a growing, thriving middle class then we won’t have the resources to solve a lot of these problems. We won’t have the resolve, the optimism, the sense of unity that we need to solve many of these other issues."

After again saying he will work with anyone to advance this effort: " But I will not allow gridlock, or inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way. (Applause.)That means whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it. (Applause.) Where I can’t act on my own and Congress isn’t cooperating, I’ll pick up the phone -- I’ll call CEOs; I’ll call philanthropists; I’ll call college presidents; I’ll call labor leaders. I’ll call anybody who can help -- and enlist them in our efforts. (Applause.)

Because the choices that we, the people, make right now will determine whether or not every American has a fighting chance in the 21st century. And it will lay the foundation for our children’s future, our grandchildren’s future, for all Americans."

He outlined areas and measures that he will focus on individually, as he began to do later in the day when he spoke in Missouri on higher education and the economy.  But when he got to the topic of health care, he had some choice words for opponents of Obamacare.  He called out the "politically motivated misinformation campaign" and described some of ACA's benefits.

He talked about poverty and about rebuilding ladders of opportunity, and equal opportunity. He challenged businesses to pay better wages, he challenged Democrats to redesign programs where needed.  And again he challenged Republicans, with a line that got a standing O and is likely to be heard again in the runup to 2014: "You can't just be against something. You got to be for something."

He pointed out that "even if you think I’ve done everything wrong, the trends I just talked about were happening well before I took office. So it’s not enough for you just to oppose me. You got to be for something. What are your ideas? If you’re willing to work with me to strengthen American manufacturing and rebuild this country’s infrastructure, let’s go. If you’ve got better ideas to bring down the cost of college for working families, let’s hear them. If you think you have a better plan for making sure that every American has the security of quality, affordable health care, then stop taking meaningless repeal votes, and share your concrete ideas with the country."  Another standing O.

He said that if Congress doesn't royally screw things up by shutting down the government ("just because I want to keep it open") or defaulting on debt, the economy will probably muddle through.  But inequality will continue to grow, and America will slip behind in the world economy.  Some powerful prophecy:

 If we just stand by and do nothing in the face of immense change, understand that part of our character will be lost. Our founding precepts about wide-open opportunity, each generation doing better than the last -- that will be a myth, not reality. The position of the middle class will erode further. Inequality will continue to increase. Money’s power will distort our politics even more. 

Social tensions will rise, as various groups fight to hold on to what they have, or start blaming somebody else for why their position isn’t improving. And the fundamental optimism that’s always propelled us forward will give way to cynicism or nostalgia.

And that’s not the vision I have for this country. It’s not the vision you have for this country. That’s not the America we know. That’s not the vision we should be settling for. That’s not a vision we should be passing on to our children." 

He pledged to concentrate on these issues for the rest of his term. "I care about one thing and one thing only, and that’s how to use every minute of the remaining 1,276 days of my term  to make this country work for working Americans again."  

He made one final moral--and character--argument for redressing this inequality of opportunity:

And in the end, isn't that what makes us special? It's not the ability to generate incredible wealth for the few; it's our ability to give everybody a chance to pursue their own true measure of happiness. (Applause.) We haven’t just wanted success for ourselves -- we want it for our neighbors, too. (Applause.)

When we think about our own communities -- we're not a mean people; we're not a selfish people; we're not a people that just looks out for “number one.” Why should our politics reflect those kinds of values? That’s why we don’t call it John’s dream or Susie’s dream or Barack’s dream or Pat's dream -- we call it the American Dream. And that’s what makes this country special -- the idea that no matter who you are or what you look like or where you come from or who you love, you can make it if you try. (Applause.) That’s what we're fighting for.

So, yes, Congress is tough right now, but that’s not going to stop me. We're going to do everything we can, wherever we can, with or without Congress, to make things happen. We're going to go on the road and talk to you, and you'll have ideas, and we want to see which ones we can implement. But we're going to focus on this thing that matters."

President Obama ended by quoting Carl Sandburg, the American poet that every Knox student of the past century knows was born in Galesburg.  In another time of change, Sandburg wrote: "Yesterday is a wind gone down, a sun dropped in the west. There is only an ocean of tomorrows, a sky of tomorrows.”

Reading this speech, I thought of FDR.  It had his vision, his analysis, his way of relating economic matters to ordinary people, his directness in calling out the opposition, and above all his willingness to try things.

Watching and listening to this speech, I saw some of Bill Clinton and some of Michelle adapted to the basic Obama.  His gestures were eloquent, his body language never better.  Yet also echoes of his classic "Yes We Can" speech.

Even if reporters ignored the speech (reporters and pundits who complain that he doesn't lay out a vision and action plan for the economy, and then complain when he does that it will never get anywhere, and nobody was listening anyway) in favor of the big scoop of the royal baby's name, this speech may be a harbinger of things to come (especially the rest of this year, and into the 2014 campaigns), as well as a speech that will be looked back on as an initial defining statement for Obama's second term.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Perspective Monday

After peaceful weekend demonstrations across the country, Time columnist Toure wrote of President Obama's "Bravery" in his Trayvon Martin statements on Friday:

" It was a treacherous speech politically because for one part of the divide the answer to black pain is: get over it, as Representative Andy Harris recently said. Racism is in the past, white privilege is a myth, profiling is a ghost: Doesn’t Obama’s election prove we’re beyond all that? The President knows better. He asked, in his 19-minute address, that black pain be acknowledged, that internalized bias be taken seriously, that history be understood as not done with us yet."

A poll came out showing a black/white racial divide in opinion over the Zimmerman case.  Don't know how much this tells us.  But it is significant I think that there is the same black/white divide over Stand Your Ground laws and gun control.

Also on Monday, the White House released its selection of photos from the month of June, including several from the Obamas visit to Africa, including the one above, taken at the House of Slaves Museum in Senegal.

Also announced: President Obama will begin a series of appearances highlighting his agenda for the economy with a major economic address on Wednesday, at my old stomping grounds of Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.  It was the site of a speech he made in 2005 as a Senator that I've noted here before.

Commenting on the "other side of the aisle/planet" in much the same terms as I have here recently, though perhaps even more sharply and certainly more consequently, owing to his rep, his cred, his Twitter followers or whatever, Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine wrote in a column titled Anarchists of the House/The Republican Congress is testing a new frontier of radicalism—governmental sabotage, which he began by narrating Eric Cantor's "smarmy, ultrapartisan" attempt to pass a bill defunding crucial parts of Obamacare.  It failed because even more ultraconservative Rs shouted that it didn't go far enough--it wasn't yet another bill to eliminate Obamacare.  Chait:

 Spectacles like this have turned into a regular feature of life in the Republican House. The party leadership draws up a bill that’s far too right-wing to ever become law, but it fails in the House because it isn’t right-wing enough. Sometimes, as with the attempts to repeal Obamacare, the failures don’t matter much, but in other instances the inability to pass legislation poses horrifying dangers. The chaos and dysfunction have set in so deeply that Washington now lurches from crisis to crisis, and once-dull, keep-the-lights-on rituals of government procedure are transformed into white-knuckle dramas that threaten national or even global catastrophe.

"The Republican Party has spent 30 years careering ever more deeply into ideological extremism, but one of the novel developments of the Obama years is its embrace of procedural extremism," he continues. "The hard right’s extremism has bent back upon itself, leaving an inscrutable void of paranoia and formless rage and twisting the Republican Party into a band of anarchists. And the worst is not behind us."

The rest of this piece is a succinct history of what the congressional Rs have done in the Obama years, right through their recent farm bill debacle.  But "the worst" that's potentially ahead is another battle over raising the debt ceiling, with Rs making even more outrageous--and entirely impossible-- demands than last time, threatening to shut down the government as well as topple the global economy.   "The reign of the Republican House has not yet inflicted any deep or permanent disaster on the country, but it looks like it is just a matter of time."   I guess that depends on your definition of disaster-- the sequester seems deep, and the refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis may be the essence of permanent-- but the debt ceiling could well be an immediate and indisputable catastrophe.  All the more likely because it's absurdly unnecessary.

Update Tuesday: A more optimistic view of the prospects for a fall debt ceiling crisis, as Senate Rs turn more towards the moderates: "The group of Senate Republicans working constructively on appropriations overlaps broadly with the Republicans who’ve backed immigration reform, helped confirm several presidential nominees, and have been working behind the scenes on a budget deal that, if enacted, would replace sequestration and end debt limit brinksmanship, perhaps permanently. They represent the significant minority of Senate Republicans who are opposed to sequestration and fed to the teeth with their party’s dysfunction."