Throughout American history, some of our greatest political thinkers have understood that at the end of the day, democracy works better when average Americans rather than elites run things, because regular people instinctively get the truth of what is going on in the real world — on Main Street — more than out-of-touch elites. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine got this; as did Abe Lincoln, who believed in a government of, by, and for the people. So did the reformers and organizers of the 20th Century like Saul Alinsky and Walter Reuther. They all knew that the people might get things wrong some of the time, but that ultimately it was better to trust and empower regular folks because the elites generally messed up a lot more of the time than democracy did.
When I read the great memos and reams of data that Stan Greenberg and James Carville at Democracy Corps put out, and read focus group and polling reports from other pollsters I respect, I am reminded of that truth once again. It is striking how much better regular folks understand, than most of the elites in this country, what is really going on with this economy. They aren’t following the moment-to-moment blips in the job or GDP numbers so much as they know deep in their guts that the American middle class is in real danger, that it is on a long downhill decline, and that there needs to be big fundamental changes. This has big implications for the 2012 election.
The swing voters swing because they go back and forth on whom to blame more — Wall Street and big business or the government — and what then to do about it. They think both sides of that equation are bad: that Wall Street screwed up the economy, and that government can’t succeed because it is bought off by Wall Street and other wealthy special interests. They think both political parties are bad. And they for the most part aren’t feeling like the economy is getting much better, or that, as President Obama put it in his State of the Union address, “America is back!” They are pessimists (at least in the short term), populists, alienated from the establishment. That is why I continue to fear a more upbeat message on how the economy really is getting better from the Obama team will cause him to lose. Stan and James reminded me recently of the last ad we ran in the 1992 Clinton campaign, the single most effective ad we ran that fall. I wish I could find the video for you, but I haven’t been able to. It was a 15-second ad that had a clip of George Bush talking about how the economy really was getting better and jobs were starting to pick up again (both of which were technically true), and then the screen just cut to lettering and a voice saying “How ya doing?” People responded strongly to it, feeling in their gut that the economy the last four years had not been getting better, and that Bush was out of touch for saying so. It turned a race that had been tightening into an easy six-point win.
My concern isn’t just, as I have written about before, that the Obama team doesn’t brag too much about economic improvements that most voters aren’t feeling yet. My bigger worry is that Obama, other Democrats, and the broad progressive movement will just miss the moment we are in: middle-class voters have a deep understanding that something is profoundly wrong with the direction our economy has been heading for the last 30 years. They understand, far better than most elites, the underlying trends that are grinding middle-class families into the dirt, and are making it harder and harder for poor people and young people to climb the ladder into the middle class. They are cynical about politicians bragging about job growth because they know that most new jobs don’t pay what the ones that were lost used to, or are temp jobs that will be gone all too fast. They know that wage growth is flat, housing prices are down, and the costs of necessities — gas, groceries, health care — keep going up. They worry about being able to retire with enough money to live on, about taking care of their elderly parents and grandparents, and about sending their kids to college with tuition rates skyrocketing.
This kind of frame of mind for voters makes things challenging for an incumbent President trying to win re-election, but it also presents an opportunity. The Osawatomie, Kansas speech, where Obama cast himself as the fighter for the middle class in tough times, is a part of the answer, and I am glad he has taken on that mantle. But I think he needs to be more explicit and more expansive in creating the narrative, telling the story, of how we got here. The 30-year frame is helpful in part because that is clearly where voters are — that our problems started quite a while back and we have been in decline too long — and in part because it doesn’t make it seem like Obama is just trying to blame Bush, which feels too partisan and blame-gamy. (I also like the fact that it is true. It was Reagan’s policies 30 years ago which decimated our manufacturing base, started us on our current path of massive trade deficits year after year, began the massive deregulation of the financial sector, and embraced supply side economics that first led to massive tax cuts for the wealthy, big budget deficits, and a concentration of both income at the top and industry concentration in one sector of the economy after another.)
The point wouldn’t be to launch an assault on Reagan, though, but to sketch out the bigger, deeper narrative. Here’s what I’d like Obama to be saying:
About 30 years ago, our country started on a track that led us to where we are today. We let our manufacturing base wither away; wages flattened out, and raises became hard to come by; pensions started disappearing; health care costs and college tuition rates started spiking; and both incomes and entire industries started to become all too concentrated at the top. The middle class and the entrepreneurial small business people who have built this country and have been the pillars of their communities, have been under steady assault, and too much of the time government stopped being on their side because it was captured by special interests that got more and more wealthy. The rich got a lot richer, millions of local small businesses closed down under predatory competition from the big boys, and poor and middle income people got continually squeezed.
It is our generation’s task to turn this around. We need to have a plan that is very focused and intentional about changing things and putting government firmly and definitively on the side of the great American middle class and the young and poor people trying to climb the ladder into it. We need to create jobs- not just low wage temporary jobs, but long term jobs with good pay and benefits. We need to rebuild our schools, our roads, our bridges, and our manufacturing base by investing in the future of our middle class. We need to invest in R&D and high-speed internet for all Americans, and to make sure the Internet doesn’t get messed with and remains open to the innovators of the future. We need to be very clear with Wall Street bankers who ran roughshod over the economy and the corporate CEOs who have been making 400 times what their average workers were making that we will finally be holding them accountable, and will be requiring them to be good community members again — including paying their fair share in taxes. We need to demand that major companies create good jobs here, not just outsource them where the labor is cheap and there are no environmental regulations.
This will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight. But this economy will never get back on solid ground for the long term unless we get to work on it right now.
President Obama gave a version of that kind of speech in Kansas, and it was a great speech, but I think he needs to be even more explicit in the how we got here, and about spelling out the narrative creating a path to a prosperous growing middle class again. He needs to be very clear that he doesn’t just want to create jobs, but good long term jobs that have staying power in the economy. And he needs to be 100 percent forceful and definitive that his entire economic policy — from job creation to helping small business compete with the big boys, from cleaning up government waste due to special interests to reforming the tax code, from health care to education and student loans, from battling the oil companies and speculators on the price of gas to battling Wall Street on behalf of homeowners and consumers — is centered around being on the side of the 99 percent.
The USA is at a historic juncture in its politics and economic system. The events of the last five years have convinced the clear majority of Americans that we are on the wrong track not only in the short term but for a long time now, and that the biggest, broadest, most prosperous and dynamic middle class in world history is on the verge of being crushed. To win re-election, Obama needs to show voters that he understands that danger, and that he has a plan and a passion for turning things around. As entertaining as the Republican primary comedy of errors has been, as bad a candidate as Mitt Romney is, to win this election the President has to keep demonstrating, over and over on issue after issue, that he will take on the special interests crushing the middle class.