The President's Story And The Progressive Response

President Obama's speech Thursday night was one of his best ever delivered, and thank goodness he is making a huge political push on the all-important jobs issue. It was a good night for him, and he needed this badly for his political standing. But progressive activists should neither fall into a posture of uncritical support, or just focus on the negative sides of the speech, policy, and political strategy, as sometimes is done by our more hardcore brethren. We should take a critical eye to what is good and bad about the policy, and enthusiastically support the good side while strongly opposing what is bad; we should applaud that he has gone bigger and bolder than conventional wisdom in DC said he would or should, while calling for even more boldness because this package isn't enough to get this economy out of the deep, deep hole it is in. The President needs to have a left flank, not just because of political positioning but because progressives have a moral imperative to stand strongly for what the right thing to do is.

We should not let the fact that we are conflicted on the President's proposal slow down our willingness to take action to fight for what we believe in, either. We need to be strong and clear in what we are calling for, and fight for everything we believe in with every muscle we have.

Let's start with the negatives:

  • The President using right-wing talking points on how Medicare and Medicaid have to be cut is unconscionable. The fact that he wants to focus on jobs is wonderful, but claiming that we need to make cuts in Medicare and Medicaid benefits to pay for it is a terrible Sophie's Choice: who do you want to sacrifice, workers or seniors? It's terrible politics and terrible policy, and should be completely rejected. The problem with Medicare and Medicaid costs has to do with the health care industry -- many providers, drug companies, insurers -- driving up both public and private health care costs. We don't need to cut benefits, we don't need to squeeze already hurting states on Medicaid costs, and we don't need to raise the retirement age.
  • This Georgia "jobs" plan the President has adopted as his own is right-wing economics at its worst: make unemployed folks work for free, and rob unemployment benefits to pay for it.
  • No analysis I have seen of the trade deals the President is supporting as part of his jobs package suggest that these trade deals will produce a net increase in exports. More exports, sure- but it's the net number that matters in actually producing more jobs. The way these trade deals are structured, they are not likely to be a net plus in producing new jobs.
  • Way too much of this package in general is more tax cuts for business, which economists generally agree has far less of a direct impact in creating jobs than direct spending to create jobs. As Rep. Jan Schakowsky said in introducing her terrific short-terms jobs bill, the best way to create jobs is to simply create jobs: in other words, to directly hire more teachers and cops and firefighters and road construction workers.
  • One of the biggest disappointments about this package is a missed opportunity: the President shouldn't just be focused on jobs, but on good jobs with good pay and good benefits. He should have announced that he was creating a White House office on good jobs, and executive orders to make sure that in all federal government contracting and procurement, the priority would be to work with companies that paid decent wages and had decent benefits. He could still do this, but the fact that in spite of some great rhetoric at the beginning of the speech about the importance of good jobs, none of the policy proposals in the speech seem directly related to insuring that new jobs that are created as a result of these measures will have decent pay or benefits.
  • Another big missed opportunity: we should be helping pay for all these jobs programs with more taxes on the financial speculation that destroyed the economy in the first place.

On the other hand there is a lot to feel good about in the President's policy proposals, including:

  • The fact that he is targeting help to small business rather than the big business behemoths that usually get most of the benefits out of government because of their lobbyists, the same companies that do most of the outsourcing of jobs overseas, is a great thing. Democrats and progressives need to be firmly and passionately on the side of helping small businesses, who have been so hard hit by this long and deep recession, survive and grow.
  • Similarly, while as I said above I am leery of business tax cuts in general, targeting them specifically to companies that are actually creating new jobs is far preferable to the Republican approach of just throwing wads of money at any business or individual who is rich, and hoping that as a result they will trickle the money down the masses in the form of some new job somewhere someday.
  • While I remain nervous about the long term politics of cutting the payroll tax, Obama's focus on cutting taxes for working class people and raising them for the wealthy is exactly where we need to go.
  • These road and school construction jobs are crucially important to rebuilding our economy, both in the short and long term.
  • With all the teacher layoffs over the last couple of years, class sizes are ridiculously big. The new teacher hires are incredibly important, again both in the short and long term.
  • The size of this package pleasantly surprised me. Given that early discussions in the White House had people advocating something far smaller, and given the conventional wisdom from the D.C. establishment about how modest he should be, the fact that Obama is pushing for $450 billion is better than I expected. I had told people at the White House that this package needed to focus on three words: big, urgent, and now. It seems like this meets that test. Now, just to be clear: I do not think it is enough. We need to be spending far more than this to really jolt the economy the way it needs to be jolted. Progressives need to be crystal clear that this is not enough. But given what it might have been, I am pleasantly surprised.

On the speech itself, I have one thing beyond the policy I am really happy about, and one thing I'm really troubled by. Let me start with the latter: I didn't agree with everything my friend Drew Westen said in his now famous NYT op-ed about the President, but I do wish the President listened to him more when it comes to the need to tell a story. I really think it was important for the President in the beginning of his speech to explain to people how we got to this terrible economic place. He just launched right into the policy, but without an understanding of how we landed in this awful place, I fear voters won't understand how what Obama is proposing solves the problem. He needed to talk about how the irresponsibility of the last ten years -- no oversight of Wall Street speculators, not paying for wars and big tax cuts to the wealthy -- created an entire decade without job or income growth, and created the housing bubble -- the combination of which wrecked the economy and put us in the deepest hole we have been in since the Great Depression. He needed to explain that times are not business as usual, that times like these create the need for bold and urgent action. By not doing that, I fear voters will not get why what he is proposing is different and needed, and will make it far easier for Republicans to just attack this as the same old stimulus policies that didn't work before.

On the other hand, the speech's summary was great at context setting. When the President lays out the broad philosophical basis for why government action is needed, and why we need to all be in this together, he strengthens his case immeasurably. It was a wonderful closing, and really important to make those points. The language he used sounded like it came out of the speeches progressives have been giving for a while, and it is very politically powerful stuff.

It is great that the President is out there with a big, bold jobs package. He took the advice of the progressive movement on that, and today he looks like a far stronger leader as a result. We still need to fight him on the things he is wrong about, and we still need to push him to do more, both in legislative proposals and in the things he can do through executive action. But he is in far better shape politically today, and as someone who strongly prefers a President Obama to a President Perry in the next term, I am happy.

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