President Obama's speech last week in Osawatomie, Kansas was the true "pivot" towards jobs and away from the austerity debates of last summer for which workers, occupy protesters and tens of millions more have been waiting. As Jarvis Tyner commented, "we can criticize Obama and when it is done in a united front way he has shown that he can be moved." We can also note that no amount of unemployment, suffering, wage-cuts, or desperation appears to move any Republican candidate for president in the slightest degree.
The Osawatomie speech was an important and revealing look at Obama's domestic policy agenda as the election year begins in earnest. He clearly judges the possibility of serious compromise with the Republicans before the voters cast a judgment next November as minimal. He took a big step toward a serious jobs program while embracing the principle of bipartisanship by invoking the progressive side of Republican Teddy Roosevelt's campaign against the rising inequality of his time. Obama anchored all his arguments with an assault on the growing inequality in the US today, clearly showing the impact of the Occupy movement, and the labor-led victories in Ohio, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Arizona and Maine.
Without negating any of the downside of TR (his racism, for example) Obama's association with the progressive side of TR's reforms was an artful tactic. A tactic that appeals to the moderate Republican constituencies whose support he hopes to-in fact must-split away from the Republican agenda. Dividing the enemy is an art most trade unions excel in, but some on the left seem to have an allergy to it. Fear of somehow being seduced by the dark side is involved I think. But one need not be concerned that associating TR with a modern assault on reducing inequality will weaken the movement-when reducing inequality is beginning to look like a revolutionary demand to the right-wing monopolies.
As Jared Bernstein, Vice President Biden's chief economic advisor, observes: "The contrast between YOYO (you're on your own) economics and the trickle-down, starve-the-beast agenda it implies, and the President's we're-in-this-together agenda has the potential to be deeply resonant with the vast majority of Americans for whom YOYO has been a terrible bust."
But we need to add some meat on the bones, some structure to the debate. In the first place, REAL, IMMEDIATE progress on unemployment needs to be made. Especially among youth the government must become an employer of last resort. Minor initiatives like patent reform, free trade deals, "doubling exports" (with no regard to imports) doesn't cut it. The heart of the president's speech was new, real economic opportunities for working people. It was NOT a call for fumbling around the edges or scoring points with interest groups.
The President targeted four areas in the speech: higher education, infrastructure, progressive taxation, and financial regulation.
1. Higher Ed: Improving college access is vitally important. However, we must be mindful that education policy is supply-side. It's critical in the medium and long term, but it's a lesser part of the solution to our biggest short-term challenge: the quantity of jobs. There are many educated people out there that are over 99 weeks without a job.
2. Infrastructure: This is the number one place to invest a lot of energy in setting a jobs agenda. But, as Jared Bernstein writes: "The key here is to not get hung up on shovel ready-like-it-or-not, we'll need the work for much longer than that. We need to think about large-scale ideas that go beyond roads and bridges." Projects like FAST! (Fix America's Schools Today) proposed by Senator Sherrod Brown are things that people can relate to in their daily lives. A national project to burying electricity and phone lines would be hugely popular in the aging Bos-Wash corridor, where you can easily lose power for weeks when hit by monster storms which used to happen ever 30 years but now come every 6 months. There is no shortage of work that needs to be done.
3. Tax Reform: As the President stressed in his speech, public infrastructure investment costs money, so fiscal policy must account for it. But, as Bernsteain argues, I agree -keep it very simple: Stop favoring one type of income over another. The distortions in the tax code around "investment income," like capital gains and dividends, lose mountains of revenue, feed inequality, and are at the heart of the "Buffett problem"- the fact that many of the wealthiest households face lower rates than average folks.
4. Transaction Tax: If nothing else is done (separating investment and commercial banking, etc) making the financial industry INSURE THEMSELVES against their own recklessness is a MUST.
Other items that should be considered start with a manufacturing policy that HAS to be added to the agenda. Without an industrial policy like China and Germany - the green revolution will pass us by! In addition steps to immediately improve the incomes and protections of low-wage, low value-added non-tradable, service work (think home-health aides, cashiers, security guards, etc), including easier unionization, living wage laws, national health care, and free college educations for workers and their children - are essential to fight the corrosive effects of inequality.
Whoever wins the Republican nomination, the competing vision will be between the YOYOs on one side, and ideas like those above on the other. In essence, the conservative vision will be looking back toward Bush, arguing that everything's basically fine in the economy except Obama needs to go, the wealthy need to keep more of their pretax income, and the EPA and Departments of Education and commerce need to be shut down.
That will not resonate beyond the corporate base. And neither will it win the election when there ARE alternatives: In that regard, the President took a great step forward for the whole country in Kansas.
Photo; President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at Osawatomie High School, Dec. 6, in Osawatomie, Kan. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)