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.
– Remarks by the President [Barack Obama] on the Economy — Knox College, Galesburg, IL (July 23, 2013)
We had that once, it was called the New Deal. I watched President Obama’s speech and, for lack of better term, he half-assed it. While the quote above is fantastic, he didn’t follow through. He failed to name exactly who, or what, the “forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades” are. He is, for whatever reason, incapable of engaging those forces head-on and the needed changes won’t happen until he does. See the Rick Perlstein’s Rules of Liberal Political Success, which has this great line.
No liberal regime has ever succeeded in American History without successfully stigmatizing the conservatism that preceded it as a failure that ruined ordinary people’s lives.
The best analysis of the speech comes from Robert Borosage, Obama: Revive the American Dream. He calls what Obama left out “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.
In his speech Obama does a good job of pointing our what so many have lost.
A good job with decent wages and benefits, a good education, home of your own, retirement security, health care security — I’m going to make the case for why we’ve got to rebuild ladders of opportunity for all those Americans who haven’t quite made it yet — who are working hard but are still suffering poverty wages, who are struggling to get full-time work.
But Borosage saves some of his harshest criticism for Obama when he turns his criticism of Democrats. Because Obama is continuing to cling to “New Democrat” spin.
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. [Emphasis added]
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.
It’s impossible for anyone who isn’t friendly to the corporations to get elected in our current political system. Inequality and democracy don’t mix, (See Lawrence Lessig’s Lesterland). The kind of inequality we currently have is making democracy impossible. The movement Borosage mentions will start some day. But it will not come from Washington, it will have to come from the people. Washington is too beholden to corporate cash and is incapable of starting it. Only a movement of the people can break that tie, and then the middle class and the American Dream will can be a reality again.