|Kids Activities Blog|
by Bram Reichbaum
On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a hyped-up speech about the economy.
In the period after World War II, a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity. Whether you owned a company, or swept its floors, or worked anywhere in between, 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.
But over time, that engine began to stall — and a lot of folks here saw it — that bargain began to fray. Technology made some jobs obsolete. Global competition sent a lot of jobs overseas. It became harder for unions to fight for the middle class. Washington doled out bigger tax cuts to the very wealthy and smaller minimum wage increases for the working poor. (Text; Video)
The President then laid out a vision for encouraging that which America’s social fabric demands, but which markets do not produce: a “middle class” capable of generating robust demand for a stable economy.
To do this he would raise the minimum wage; use the tax code to reward domestic manufacturing and energy production; put more people to work building transportation, power and information infrastructure; lower the cost of getting an education; lower the cost of having health care; and make it easier to afford a home.
What was striking was the seriousness of the approach.
The President was resignedly, plaintively clear that these were the same debates on which we have been stuck for the last 30 years. That there are no “new” proposals.
If you have a square peg and a square hole, the only solution is to insert the square peg into the square hole, that is if you are indeed interested in filling holes.
Obama sought to lay a political foundation by implying that with the speed of our national social regression, this is the only debate in America that matters at this stage. On it hinges our capacity to address anything else.
We can be the nation we were until recently or we can be a mere zone, a set of borders, where contracts are enforced but families are pretty much on their own, where a vast majority and therefore the whole nation is going to be needlessly disadvantaged. Like an inefficient engine, we’ll simply waste capable people who require assistance surmounting the pitfalls of global competition; we’ll either miss them or they’ll gum up the works.
Obama bluntly promised that the rest of his Presidency would be driven by this priority, for better or for worse. Implicit was the idea that whatever else may be on your mind, it is not quite this sort of existential American emergency: a crisis of confidence, a rejection of the idea that we deserve to address the most common obstacles to economic participation.
Implicit in the “bargain” the President sees is that if you’re worried about getting a job that enables you to pay bills, if your family is struggling to receive medical care, or with rent or qualifying for a home loan, and if college seems like an unaffordable, dangerous luxury — then you very likely feel justified in placing the great debates of our time on the back burner, such as domestic surveillance, or how to keep a lid on foreign affairs, or the vagaries of whether natural gas is a worthwhile bridge fuel in this age of coal, or the latest trade deal in a world where free trade has been ascendant since Adam and Eve. Those are all problems to worry about if the underlying rationale for this nation is healthy and people are benefiting from it.
Of all the ungovernable quandaries we confront, the dream of a strong and reasonably accessible middle class to drive national economic demand is the one our President, at five-years in, judges to have retained what is closest to a critical mass of support. It speaks to that face of national identity most difficult to surrender. The engine upon which the rest of our capacities turn.
The speech certainly wasn’t about Obama’s legacy or popularity, so I’m not sure why it is being evaluated exclusively on those terms. Take him out of it.
Instead it was meant as the opening tone of what promises to be a long, relentless wake-up siren that America is overdue in making a decision. What are we? Are we a nation? Are we going to be a nation that thinks ahead and puts one foot in front of the other? That acknowledges that broad domestic tranquility is a valuable, perishable asset that does not simply grow on trees, especially not in the face of global market forces? That can rebuild a bridge once in a while, or maybe even run a bus?
Sooner or later we’re going to have to remember we are in fact a nation, and that it’s okay to be one. It’s better than the alternative.