When President Obama frames the story of the American dream as one that is harmed by economic inequality, progressives should cheer - and they should also prepare to sharpen that story and tie it to action.
Barak Obama captured the national imagination on the strength of his ability to tell his own story as part of our national story, starting with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He was elected and remains personally popular in no small part because of the resonance of his story with the way Americans want to view themselves. In his speech yesterday on economic mobility, given at a Washington DC hub for community organizations that fight poverty, he continued to update that story, with a sharper focus on the dire crisis of the American dream, a stronger emphasis on the role of government, and a clearer attention to race.
The President repeated the core of his story about America yesterday:
Now, the premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story. And while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity -- the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit. [Emphasis added].
Obama has consistently framed our American story in terms of our values, and then linked those values to our economic success. The focus of his speech is that the story is no longer true:
The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe. And it is not simply a moral claim that I’m making here. There are practical consequences to rising inequality and reduced mobility. [Emphasis added]
Opening his speech by saying that what he’s come to talk about is “a belief that we’re greater together than we are on our own,” he declares that the “defining challenge of our time” is “making sure our economy works for every working American.”
Obama gives a history lesson, both about how we made the American Dream real and about how it has been lost. The President makes it clear that America’s success is grounded in an activist government, from Lincoln’s land grant colleges; to Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting and eight-hour workday; to FDR’s Social Security, unemployment insurance, and minimum wage; to LBJ’s Medicare and Medicaid. “And as a result,” he summarizes, “America built the largest middle class the world has ever known. And for the three decades after World War II, it was the engine of our prosperity.”
That last phrase – the middle class as the engine of prosperity – is at the core of the progressive economic narrative. This is a direct contradiction to the conservative story that business in a free market is the driver of wealth. That’s backwards, Obama explains, “When families have less to spend, that means businesses have fewer customers, and households rack up greater mortgage and credit card debt; meanwhile, concentrated wealth at the top is less likely to result in the kind of broadly based consumer spending that drives our economy, and together with lax regulation, may contribute to risky speculative bubbles.”
When the President gets to his telling of how we got into this mess, he skirts lightly over who is to blame, which is the biggest consistent failing throughout his rhetoric. He begins by blaming technology and globalization, ignoring the fact that the other countries Obama recognizes as having much more economic mobility than the U.S., faced the same challenges.
He then says that “As values of community broke down, and competitive pressure increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage. As a trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither.”
The President appears to be excusing business for their behavior. What he doesn’t say is that business was a leading force in breaking down those values, deciding that enriching shareholders and CEOs was more important than providing decent wages and support for communities. The reference to “trickle-down ideology” obscures the relentless attack by corporate America and the right upon Obama’s core values of “we’re greater together than on our own.”
Any powerful story needs villains and it is here that Obama punts. Teddy Roosevelt laid it on “the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.” FDR clearly laid the blame on the “economic royalists.” For the right’s great communicator, Ronald Reagan, it was “welfare queens.” It is never clear from Obama who is to blame, which is a key reason that core parts of his story get lost. The President says that Americans have a “nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them.” The truth is that Americans have a very strong sense that the deck is stacked against them by powerful corporations and the super-rich who use their lobbyists and campaign contributions to control our government.” If Obama is going to rally people to take on those forces, he has to name them and take them on.
The President does take on President Reagan’s villain, a villain which is still at the center of right-wing opposition to Obama and government more generally. The speech yesterday was notable in that he directly challenged “the myth that this is a problem restricted to a small share of predominantly minority poor.” He says, “African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity.”
After acknowledging continued racism, he bridges to class, “The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups: poor and middle class; inner city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races.“ He says that we’re seeing the problems “one attributed to the urban poor” “pop up everywhere.”
So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts. [Emphasis added]
The point of this speech – “you'll be pleased to know this is not a State of the Union Address” he jokes – is not to give specific solutions. Given the impossibility of passing anything in the House, that would be a fool’s errand. Obama instead aims to lay out a vision for how to move forward, based on his insistence that “government action time and again can make an enormous difference in increasing opportunity and bolstering ladders into the middle class.”
His program for government action is grouped in five categories: tax policy and investment for growth; education and skills training; empowering workers; targeted programs for hard-hit communities; and programs that provide security, from Social Security to the Affordable Care Act.
That third bucket – empowering workers – is a welcome focus, one that the President has too often skirted. “It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to -- (applause) -- so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.” Sensing one area with current political umph, he made a big push for raising the minimum wage.
Stories need a happy ending, or at least some prospects of one. The last paragraph of Obama’s speech places that happy ending squarely on the shoulders of government, with echoes of FDR (“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us”). Obama concludes with:
But government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts. Because government is us. It can and should reflect our deepest values and commitments. And if we refocus our energies on building an economy that grows for everybody, and gives every child in this country a fair chance at success, then I remain confident that the future still looks brighter than the past, and that the best days for this country we love are still ahead.
While progressives are often frustrated by the President they worked so hard to elect, we have a huge amount to learn from Obama’s deep understanding of how to powerfully express our core American values and link them to a story about the government’s role in creating broadly-based prosperity. Our job is to tell a sharper version of that story – with villains and anger to motivate action – as well as with hope, through our words and through our organizing. Today’s fast food actions around the nation are a great example. We agree with the President that an America that works for all of us “is the defining challenge of our time.” And it will remain our challenge long after Obama leaves the White House.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.
Photo of President Obama via Shutterstock.