Roosevelt Reacts: What Worked and What Didn't in the 2014 State of the Union

Jan 29, 2014

Roosevelt Institute Fellows and Network members weigh in on what they liked about President Obama's fifth State of the Union and where it fell short.

Andrea Flynn, Roosevelt Institute Fellow:

Roosevelt Institute Fellows and Network members weigh in on what they liked about President Obama's fifth State of the Union and where it fell short.

Andrea Flynn, Roosevelt Institute Fellow:

Last night, President Obama again proved himself to be a champion of improving the economic security of American women. He addressed many policy initiatives – immigration reform, universal pre-K, paid sick and family leave, and strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit – that, if advanced by Congress, would have a positive impact on women and their families. Most notable was his strong support for raising the minimum wage. Yesterday the president issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees at least $10.10 an hour, and in his address he called on governors and state legislators around the country to follow his example. This is an issue that disproportionately affects women and their families. As of 2011, women represented 46.9 percent of the work force but more than 62 percent of minimum-wage workers. More than 2.5 million American women have incomes at or below the minimum wage. As President Obama noted, women still only get paid $.77 for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, with women of color being particularly impacted by wage discrepancies. Black women earn $.64 and Latina women $.55 for every dollar a white man earns. Conservatives are likely to criticize President Obama for using the power of his office to mandate such a sweeping change, but there is precedent for utilizing the power of executive orders to institute improvements in the workplace. In fact, more than 40 years ago, President Nixon issued an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sex, race, age and other characteristics. That order paved the way for an expansion of employment opportunities for women, just as President Obama’s order will begin to level the playing field for American women and their families.

Yasemin Ayarci, President, George Washington University chapter, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

While I was pleased to hear the announcement of an increase in minimum wage for federally contracted workers through an executive order, President Obama must also put in place limitations on executive pay, which will hold them accountable for funneling taxpayer money into their own pockets. But after spending the majority of his time in office coddling banks and wealthy donors, Obama is not the person to look to for decreasing income inequality. To the president, economic reform means tweaking payroll taxes and making hollow calls to end tax cuts for the rich. When you observe the policy, he has made the Bush tax cuts permanent, lowered Wall Street's capital gains and dividends taxes to 20 percent, and lowered the estate tax to 40 percent, among other things. A rearrangement of the tax code that allows Americans to take back the wealth created by labor and accumulated by corporatists is key for a progressive job creation plan and for reducing income inequality levels. That sort of change will not come from the White House, and so progressives must shift their focus to the grassroots, bottom-up approach.

Erik Pekkala, member, Greater Boston Network, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:

President Obama set a bold vision for our nation in his 2014 State of the Union address last night. He started the speech by citing various policy accomplishments and measures of growth, signaling "after five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth."

The President addressed head-on the Washington gridlock that led to October’s debt ceiling brinksmanship, shuttered the federal government and deeply frustrated the American people. President Obama said he is "eager" to work with Congress to make his vision for the nation a reality, but made it clear that "...wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do." While the Commander-in-Chief should use the powers of his office to serve the American people, there are limits to executive authority. If congressional infighting continues to block legislative progress, the Obama administration can only go so far through executive orders and federal agencies.

This State of the Union got a warmer reception from Republican members of Congress than in recent years, with GOP applause for Obama's statements on reforming the immigration system and corporate tax code. As the Republican Party continues its internal debate about its image and connecting with voters, perhaps it will be more open to collaboration and finding common ground with the President and Democrats in Congress. The President seemed renewed as he told the nation that he is ready to go to work. Let's hope he can use that same energy and leadership displayed in last night's speech to unite both parties in Congress to work together for the American people. Only then will the President's vision for our country be realized.

Rajiv Narayan, former Senior Fellow for Health Policy, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

Like many, I was struck by the president's now-crystallized shift away from a deeply unpopular and inactive Congress. While I look forward to 2014 being the politico-zodiac Year of the Executive, I think the "do-nothing" and "lame-duck" characterizations of Congress miss what the legislative branch is doing. On no less than the day of the State of the Union address, the do-nothing Congress did something pretty deplorable -- a farm bill finally moved from conference to the House and Senate floors, and it aims to cut monthly SNAP benefits to 850,000 households by $90. For a presidency increasingly focused on closing the income gap and reducing income inequality, this is a lunge in the wrong direction. As the administration focuses on action at the state and executive levels, it's important to remember we cannot make a powerful legislative body completely irrelevant. President Obama and voters need to draw the line between an unproductive Congress and a counterproductive one. 

David Meni, Vice President, George Washington University chapter, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

I found this State of the Union address to be a much different animal than addresses in past years. There was less rhetoric involving cooperation with Congress, and more emphasis on executive actions that can be taken with some immediacy and without gridlock. President Obama's relative sidelining of Congress has been talked up enough by the news, but I think the implications of the speech are interesting; we saw more policy discussion, from the long-overdue minimum wage increase for federal workers to expanding school broadband access. These are all immediate proposals that will not have to be watered down. That is refreshing.

On the other hand, I was dismayed by the amount that was glossed over. The president's discussion of college affordability was more of the same. The proposal for a comprehensive immigration bill, the much-applauded statement that women should have equal pay, and the brief sentences on gun control and military spending--all of these are critical issues that should be at the core of any State of the Union address, but what I heard was very little tangible policy. So while I am glad that the president is finally talking about addressing issues that are within his executive power, I have to admit that this State of the Union lacked ambition on many of America's most pressing issues.

Jill Nguyen, Co-Director, Hendrix College chapter, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

2013 ended with President Obama’s disapproval rating at an all-time high of 56%, according to CNN. It was a tough year, especially with the technical challenges of healthcare.gov, a much anticipated immigration reform bill kept out of the House’s agenda, and gun control actions achieved only through Executive Orders. Despite my disappointment with failed promises of previous years, the State of the Union address last night brought me back to the hope-filled time that was 2008. By recycling some promises from previous years, the President has managed to satisfy my wish list.

Considering his declaration of 2014 as a year of action, I was glad to see the President return to immigration reform. As I see it, an ideal law should keep families together, evaluate the broken deportation machine, and offer job trainings and education access to immigrants’ families. I was also pleased to see the President recognize the work of the First Lady. It was even more important that he recognized that women are still not paid equally to their male colleagues. The women who were in the chamber, who included the bipartisan group of female senators who led the negotiations that ended the government shutdown, are constitutionally guaranteed equal pay. It's well past time for all women to be paid fairly.

Tarsi Dunlop, member, DC Network, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:

As someone who works in the nonprofit education sector, I tend to focus in on elements of the State of the Union that pertain to K-12 education, and to the status of young people in American more broadly. On a rhetorical note, I was thrilled to hear President Obama open the speech with an anecdote about a teacher helping a student. So often, it is the strength of this relationship and the effort and dedication of our teachers that reach those struggling students and help them succeed in the classroom. While education was not a primary focus of last night’s speech, the President did repeat a request from last year’s State of the Union for universal pre-K.

Many state governors are looking at universal pre-K as a possibility to help students start out on more equal footing. This seems to be the strongest acknowledgment we will get from our current government that growing up in poverty can have a negative influence on student learning and academic achievement. I’m familiar with the ‘no excuses’ refrain, and I agree, but the presence of poverty cannot be ignored. While pre-K is a start, kids who grow up in poverty are very unlikely to move out of it over the course of their childhood. We need to factor that into our efforts to support schools with high percentages of low-income students, whether it in wrap-around services, after-school programs or more targeted supports for student learning. Since the full implementation of universal pre-K will rest heavily on the states and cities, the President might also consider how his administration could support such efforts – other than competitive grant funding in the form of another race to the top program.  

Zach Komes, Policy Director, George Washington University chapter, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

Globalization and technological change have dramatically transformed our urban economies from hubs for well-paying manufacturing jobs to neighborhoods suffering from extended structural unemployment. The president argued forcefully for a new year-long focus on boosting upward mobility and competitiveness in communities left behind by the economic growth of the past few decades. It's reassuring that the president has put emphasis on universal pre-kindergarten, education spending, job training, tax reform, and broadband access to help our struggling cities. However, specific and innovative urban community development policies were missing from much of the speech. In the end, though, many of the best solutions for our challenged metropolitan regions must come from far outside Washington in statehouses, city halls, college campuses, and our local communities. 

Magali Duque, Stanford University, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:

Last night's State of the Union address touched on many of the same issues the President has spoken on before, but he approached them in new ways. By using specific stories of ordinary citizens and aligning their struggles with policy arguments, the President is able to appeal to a broader audience – an audience focused on how their own issues fit into this democratic narrative. In that way, his speech was successful. My favorite moments were his appeal to women's equality, access to comprehensive health services including mental health, education innovations, socio-economic mobility, and fair policy. His hopes for women's equality in the economy appealed to not only women, but also to the American people as a whole because he framed "women's success" as "America's success."  In fact, this framework was reminiscent of John Stuart Mill's perspective on equality of the sexes in The Subjugation of Women, making an important point about the pervasiveness of gender inequality. Also, I appreciated how the President addressed educational, economic and immigration reform, because he simply laid out the facts for why they are so essential for our nation's progress. His calls to action such as "Congress, give these young people the chance they deserve" and "creating new jobs, not creating new crises," highlight the importance of a unified and unbiased approach towards policy because it "should be the power of our vote not size of our bank account that drives our policy. " The power of democracy should also be driving social progress rather than hindering it, and to do so, it should include more voices of our generation.

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State of the Union 2014: Obama Offers Action, Not Apologies

Jan 29, 2014Jeff Madrick

The president promised to do what he can without Congress, even if it isn't much.

From a political point of view, President Obama gave one of the best speeches of his presidency last night. In this, his fifth State of the Union Address, he avoided all apologies. No word about the slow progress on cutting unemployment, or the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout, or the inability to pass gun control, or the extreme excess of government intrusion on America privacy.

The president promised to do what he can without Congress, even if it isn't much.

From a political point of view, President Obama gave one of the best speeches of his presidency last night. In this, his fifth State of the Union Address, he avoided all apologies. No word about the slow progress on cutting unemployment, or the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout, or the inability to pass gun control, or the extreme excess of government intrusion on America privacy.

His tone was resolute and optimistic, and he struck many progressive chords. He made a nation that is down feel up. President Obama in particular made a strong case for a higher minimum wage. Commentators like David Brooks have pooh-poohed this because it wouldn’t raise that many families above the poverty line. This is the height of insensitivity. The poverty line is desperately low in America. But more than half the benefit would go to families that earn $40,000 or less, families in which one of its members will get a raise—usually an adult—if the minimum wage is raised. That’s a family, not an individual. And the higher minimum wage bumps up wages just above it.

Any idea that Americans are getting paid what they deserve, which is the assumption the Brookses of the world make, is a triumph of utopian insensitivity.

President Obama gave a shoutout to Senator Tom Harkin, who is leading the campaign for a $10.10 minimum wage in Congress. We are proud to say that Senator Harkin was our keynote speaker at the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative's jobs emergency conference last year.  

But as I say, the president didn’t dwell in the realm of apology. He will raise pay for those on federal contracts. He talked about equal pay for women. He wants an immigration bill. He implied that inequality cannot be tolerated at this level in America. He would offer subsidies for business to bring jobs home.

All these struck optimistic notes. But he avoided the policies that really need doing. Sequestration has to be ended and government spending pumped up to get unemployment lower at a faster pace. But he did not talk about fiscal stimulus. He would live within the bounds of the austerity economics he helped bring about, even if he was not nearly as responsible for it as the Republicans.

He did not talk much about fixes to Obamacare but made clear it is helping millions already. This may sound like rhetoric, but it is critical. Too few realize how beneficial the new plan is—which has partly been Obama’s fault. He has avoided talking much about it. Last night he came out swinging, justifiably so. But it needs some fixes, and eventually a public option.

The headline is that Obama says he will do what he can with or without a recalcitrant Congress. The truth is he can’t do much. But for a president who has not taken the battle to the members on the Hill, this speech was a triumph and long in coming. He put Congress on the spot. He should keep using the bully pulpit, unafraid to do so, because he is right and they are mostly wrong. 

Jeff Madrick is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

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Republican Alternative to Obamacare: Pay More, Get Less, Put the Insurance Companies Back in Charge

Jan 28, 2014Richard Kirsch

Now that Republicans have put out an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should emphasize what a repeal would really mean for Americans' health.

Now that Republicans have put out an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should emphasize what a repeal would really mean for Americans' health.

Boy, can Democrats have fun with the new Republican alternative to Obamacare. It puts the health insurance companies back in charge and raises costs for almost all Americans. In particular, it substantially raises costs and threatens to cut coverage for the half of all Americans who get health insurance at work. Seniors, the group that Republicans have scared witless about Obamacare, would lose the real benefits they receive under Obamacare. The proposal from three Republican senators is a golden opportunity for Democrats to contrast the specific benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with what a repeal and replace agenda would really mean for Americans’ lives and health.

When it comes to the politics of health care reform, my first adage is “the solution is the problem.” That is because once you get past vague generalities, like lowering cost and making coverage available, to proposing specifics, people will look to see how the proposals impact them personally. This is why health reform is such a political nightmare. Unlike most public policy issues, the impact is very understandable and real.

With the ACA as the law of the land, in analyzing the Republican proposal we must compare its impact to the law it would repeal. The pre-ACA model of health insurance is irrelevant. Here is how the Republican plan would impact people, compared with the ACA:

People who get health insurance at workbottom line: pay more for worse coverage.

Almost half of all Americans (48 percent), or 148 million people, obtain health insurance at work. The Republican plan would tax 35 percent of the average cost of health insurance benefits at work. This is a big tax increase on working people and is extraordinarily unpopular, as the Obama campaign used to devastating impact on John McCain. And while people would pay more, they would get less coverage, as the GOP plan would allow insurance companies to once again limit the amount of benefits they will pay out in one year and return to the day when employers could offer bare-bones plans.

While taxing health benefits would apply to all employer-provided coverage, the Republicans would give the 30 percent of people who work for businesses who employ fewer than 100 workers a tax credit. That might balance out the increased taxes for some people. However, doing so would create a huge set of economic distortions, as employers might seek to keep firm size under the 100-employee threshold.

Individuals who buy coverage on their own or who are uninsured – bottom line: insurance companies could again deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and offer bare-bones coverage, while the cost of decent coverage would go up for most people.

This is the group that the ACA is most aimed at helping, including the 5 percent of Americans who buy private health insurance and the 15 percent who are uninsured, totaling 64 million people. The ACA offers income-based subsidies to these people when they earn between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) and enrolls people under 133 percent of FPL in Medicaid, when states agree.

The Republican plan is toughest, in comparison with the ACA, on the lowest income people and on the higher-income middle-class, compared with Obamacare. But many families in between will do worse too.

The Republican plan would wipe out the expansion of Medicaid to people earning less than 133 percent of FPL, a provision the Supreme Court has made optional. It would cut back on Medicaid, ending the federal government’s offer to pay 90 percent of the cost of expanded coverage and replacing that with the federal government paying what it has paid historically, which is between half and three-quarters of the cost of Medicaid, with poorer states getting a bigger share. Crucially, the funding would only be for pregnant women, children and parents with dependent children who earn under the poverty level, as opposed to the ACAs funding of all adults up to 133% of FPL. That means many fewer people covered and states getting less Medicaid money. Republican governors may not complain, but you can bet hospitals will. Adults without dependent children would not be covered by federal Medicaid, which means millions will stay uninsured or lose coverage they now have, unless states pay for coverage without federal support.

For individuals not covered by Medicaid or employees of firms with fewer than 100 workers, the Republican plan would replace the ACA’s sliding-scale subsidies, which now go to 400 percent of FPL, with a subsidy that is the same for everyone of the same age who is under 200 percent of FPL and lowersubsidies for people from 200 percent to 300 percent. In addition, the subsidies would be higher for older people than younger. The Republican plan also would take away the requirements that insurance plans offer decent benefits and free preventive care and charge women the same prices as men for coverage, along with every other consumer protection, with the exception of keeping in place no lifetime caps for covered benefits.

Comparing the value of the Republican plan subsidies vs. the ACA subsidies for the people who would still qualify depends on income, age, and family size. Generally, it appears that the Republican subsidies are much less than the ACA for people under 150 percent of the FPL ($35,000 for a family of four) and much less than the ACA for younger people, but more for older people. However, insurance rates for younger people would go down some at the expense of older people, who insurance companies could charge a lot more than under ACA. And families with incomes above $70,000 for a family of four would lose subsidies entirely.

Seniors and the disabled on Medicare – bottom line: seniors would pay more for prescription drugs and preventive care.

By repealing the ACA, the Republican plan would take away its two concrete benefits for seniors. One is that preventive care services are now free under Medicare (as they are under all insurance). The other is that the ACA is lowering drug prices for seniors by slowly closing the “donut hole,” under which seniors must pay the full cost of prescription drugs even though they are paying premiums for drug coverage. In other words, the Republican plan is simply bad news for seniors, the constituency that they have scared the most about Obamacare groundlessly.

 

It is not surprising that Republicans have been reluctant to come up with a replacement for Obamacare. It’s much easier to throw darts – or bombs – at the ACA than to come up with a replacement that meets Republican ideological tenants of less regulation and less government. Any plan that meets the ideological test will be much worse for people in ways they can understand. It is our job to explain it to the public clearly: pay more, get less, put the insurance companies back in charge. This debate is not simply the political game Republicans want to make it. It is about our health and our lives. 

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.

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41 Years After Roe, Women's Rights Are Still at Risk

Jan 24, 2014Andrea Flynn

As we mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we should acknowledge the right's battle to eliminate a woman's right to choose as well as the proactive measures coming from the pro-choice movement.

As we mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we should acknowledge the right's battle to eliminate a woman's right to choose as well as the proactive measures coming from the pro-choice movement.

This week marks the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established women have a constitutional right to an abortion. While the status of American women has, by many counts, improved greatly in the years since, our ability to make choices about our bodies – a fundamental condition of our overall physical, social, and economic well-being – has recently eroded. For many women in the United States today, access to a safe and legal abortion is as far out of reach as it was 41 years ago.

During the past three years, conservative lawmakers in many states have imposed transformative restrictions on access to reproductive health care generally, and on abortion specifically. As the Guttmacher Institute recently reported, 205 abortion restrictions were enacted in the past three years, while 189 were passed during the entire previous decade (2001–2010). In 2013 alone, 70 anti-choice measures took effect in 22 states.

North Dakota and Texas banned abortions after 20 weeks. South Dakota passed a law that mandates a 72-hour waiting period, exempting holidays and weekends, forcing some women to wait up to six days before receiving the procedure (the 72 hours, plus a three-day holiday weekend). Iowa now requires the governor to personally approve each payment to a hospital or clinic that provides an abortion to a Medicaid patient. Arizona passed a ban on abortions after 12 weeks (which was recently overturned by the Supreme Court). In a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court, clinics in Massachusetts risk losing their ability to institute buffer zones necessary to protect the safety of their patients.

As NARAL Pro-Choice America recently detailed, laws in other states have restricted funding for Planned Parenthood, prohibited abortion coverage in the Affordable Care Act’s health exchanges, imposed mandatory and medically unnecessary ultrasounds, and required physicians to jump through countless – and often impossible – hoops in order to perform the procedure. Some of these laws have been overturned, but many remain in place and effectively prevent women, particularly poor women, from accessing care.

Republicans lost the votes of single women by a decisive 36 points – and women overall by 12 points – in the last presidential election. Losing a key voting block by such a wide margin would be reason for some politicians to consider changing course. Not the GOP. In their post-election autopsy, Republican strategists themselves sounded an alarm and advised their ranks to change course – to lighten up on matters of choice and instead remind voters of the “Republican Party’s historical role in advancing the women’s rights movement.” Instead of listening to women, Republican lawmakers remain intent on punishing them.

As my colleague Tara Culp-Ressler of Think Progress wrote, Republicans have seized on abortion with a renewed zeal and will continue to advance their anti-choice platform in the months and years to come. At the RNC annual meeting this week – which conveniently overlapped with the annual anti-abortion March for Life – party leaders introduced a resolution encouraging lawmakers to push for a host of additional abortion restrictions, including parental notification laws, late-term abortion bans, and mandatory waiting periods. As Zoe Carpenter of The Nation pointed out, Republicans will use re-invigorated anti-choice messaging – delivered by female candidates – to excite their conservative base in the mid-term elections. They remain confident that further restrictions are palatable to voters and will use them, in addition to stale (and weak) arguments about taxpayer funding for abortion, to attempt to sway undecided voters.

State legislatures and local governments are thus seen as fertile ground for waging assaults on women’s health. But contrary to Republican expectations, this year those same sites could be promising frontiers for advancing policies that protect and advance women’s health and rights instead of restricting them.

Even as heartland states delivered setbacks for women in 2013, important victories emerged out of progressive states. California enacted a law, for example, that allows nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives, and physician assistants to provide early abortion services. Lawmakers in San Francisco, Austin, and Baltimore passed laws that hold Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) accountable for false and misleading practices and require them to clearly indicate the limited nature of their services. Portland, ME instituted a buffer zone policy around abortion providers, and Dane County, WI now requires all county contractors to provide comprehensive health care information, preventing CPCs from receiving funding if they mislead their patients. We must dedicate our energy and efforts to replicating these successes across the country.

Even as we celebrate gains in progressive states, we must continue to make our voices heard nationally. In November, a group of Democratic members of Congress introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would, if passed, keep states from further restricting access to abortion and preventing physicians from acting in the best interests of their patients. While the bill has little chance of being passed in a Republican-controlled House, it provides an important model for national legislation that could protect a woman’s right to choose if partisan alignments shift.

On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade, most especially, let’s remember the heavy toll women pay when abortion is unsafe and illegal. Let’s remember that many women will lose that right all together unless we step forward and take action. We must strengthen alliances of pro-choice lawmakers across the nation, provide them with case studies of what has worked in other cities and states, and muster up more financial resources and political will to proactively protect women’s right to choose. 

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

Photo via ThinkStock.

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Is Bridgegate Politics as Usual, or Beyond the Pale?

Jan 16, 2014Bo Cutter

A perspective on the Christie administration's behavior from someone who's seen firsthand how government operates.

A perspective on the Christie administration's behavior from someone who's seen firsthand how government operates.

For those who are not familiar with the story -- perhaps that same set of people who in questionnaires do not know where the Mississippi River or the Pacific Ocean is -- Governor Chris Christie's staff created a several-day monstrous traffic jam around the George Washington Bridge last September, apparently to get back at the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey for not supporting the governor for reelection. After denying for months that anything happened, the governor fired everyone he could find, held the world's longest and most lachrymose press conference, denied all knowledge, said he was "very sad," and seemed to conclude that he was the victim here. The poor jerks who sat in traffic for several hours apparently didn't count.

The best and funniest column on this by far was by Gail Collins in Saturday's New York Times; I can't come close to that, so I'll ask the deep questions.

1. What are the odds that Governor Christie is telling the truth when he says he knew nothing?

Zero, or bagel, as they say in the finance business. I suspect he didn't order the dirty deed, but this is exactly the kind of stunt political advisors pull when they're riding high and want to show how tough they are. There would have been lots of smirking around the governor -- remember, at the time they would have been quite proud of it -- and you would have had to be about as unaware as a tree not to notice. The governor is not known for being unaware.

2. Has there been any kind of pattern that might suggest this sort of behavior was part of the governor's genotype?

The only way you can say there was no pattern here is if you are a denier of combinatorial probabilities and a lot of introductory math. The Times has specified several incidents which sure look like revenge bullying. If I give the governor a 60 percent probability that each of these events was not part of a pattern (way above my gut feel), there's still a 92 percent chance that this is all part of a pattern. I'm going with a pattern.

3. Is it surprising that the governor threw everyone on his staff within reach under the bus and denied knowing David Wildstein, a senior staff member and a friend since high school?

Are you kidding me? This is pure "homo politicus" stuff. Take my word on this: there is essentially no one in big-time American politics who wouldn't gut his or her best friend in an instant for almost any temporary advantage. (The high school friend matter is almost too easy. No one in the known universe who graduated from an American high school believed any single word, including "a," "an," and " the," of this story.)

4. Is the actual behavior just life in the big leagues or a touch disturbing?

Certainly this traffic stunt was more inventive than anything I've heard before, and I've been close to this game since 1970. The other acts were nowhere near as clever but seem to be similar to the traffic stunt in two other big ways: they feel out of proportion, and they targeted civilians, not political pros. They imposed large arbitrary penalties on normal professional people who were simply doing their jobs. But I keep coming back to the folks caught in traffic. Let's say 500,000 people were caught in the traffic jams for, say, four additional hours each. That's 2 million traffic jam person-hours. If I value people's time at $20 per hour, that's a $40 million cost, all because someone got angry that a Democratic mayor didn't support a Republican governor who was already winning by a landslide and was simply trying to run up the score. Probably some of the commuters actually lost their jobs because of this.

So ask yourself, if you're just a citizen, and this guy becomes president with a lot more power and lots more reasons to get angry, how likely are you to be collateral damage in some scheme some other political "advisor" comes up with? I think you have to come down on the "disturbing behavior" side. I know "politics ain't bean bag," as Christie said, and if one pol wants to take a whack at another pol, I couldn't care less. But this crosses a lot of lines.

So back to the question in the title. There's no way this is normal behavior for normal human beings. Some of it is very normal for "homo politicus," and for athletes and hedge fund billionaires who feel particularly entitled. But the behavior at the core is way beyond the pale. Life is tough enough without leaders dedicated to getting even at your cost for the tiniest slight or the smallest act of dissent.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

Photo via ThinkStock.

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In Contraceptive Mandate Challenges, Women’s Health and Much More is on the Line

Jan 13, 2014Andrea Flynn

Despite significant existing accommodations for religious organizations, the current challenges to the contraceptive mandate could severely limit access to reproductive care.

Despite significant existing accommodations for religious organizations, the current challenges to the contraceptive mandate could severely limit access to reproductive care.

On New Year’s Eve Justice Sotomayor temporarily blocked enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraceptive mandate on a Colorado-based religious organization – Little Sisters for the Poor and Aged – paving the way for the heated debates on women’s health that will ensue in the year ahead.

The contraceptive mandate, which requires employers to provide full coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods, has been a lightning rod since it was first introduced. Religious groups argued it violated their religious liberty, given their religious-based opposition to contraception. In response, President Obama modified the mandate by creating an “exception” that exempts houses of worship all together, and an “accommodation” that enables organizations that identify as religious (such as Little Sisters) to opt-out. Their employees can receive contraceptive coverage from a third-party insurer. These provisions should have put a quick end to the religious objections, but they didn't.

In order to opt-out of the contraceptive mandate, organizations must sign a form that certifies they identify as religious and acknowledges that either their insurance company or a third-party administrator will contact employees directly to provide coverage. Effectively, this provision removes the non-profit from coverage of birth control all together. However, Little Sisters argues that the simple act of signing that form constitutes a substantial burden on their religious liberty.

Here’s the kicker: all of this is moot because Little Sisters’ insurance company is run by the Christian Brothers, which is considered a church and is therefore exempt from adhering to the mandate. So while Little Sisters does have to sign the form procedural reasons (and to prevent them from being fined for not complying with the mandate), the insurance company can – and likely would – legally refuse to provide the coverage.

While this specific case will have little impact on the employees of Little Sisters (who are out of luck either way), an ultimate ruling in the organization’s favor would provide more fuel to the anti-contraceptive mandate fire already raging across the country.

It also lays the groundwork for two cases already on the Supreme Court docket that will determine the future of contraceptive coverage. In those cases – Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, to be heard on March 25 – the owners of private companies have asserted that providing contraceptive coverage for their employees is a violation of their religious liberty.  The Court will determine if for-profit groups actually have religious liberty, and – if yes – if the contraceptive mandate infringes on that liberty.  That decision will either guarantee contraceptive coverage to millions of women for the foreseeable future, or set a precedent where employers can use their personal religious beliefs as a basis for refusing coverage of a host of health services.

The 91 cases filed against the contraceptive mandate (46 from for-profit companies and 45 from non-profit organizations) reflect conservatives’ deep discomfort with women’s sexuality and their staunch opposition to facilitating – even in the slightest way – women’s sexual autonomy. The overwhelming acceptance and use of birth control among all American women means nothing. Indeed, 99 percent of sexually active women in America have used contraception, including nearly 90 percent of Protestants and Catholics.

All women should have access to comprehensive health services, including the full range of contraceptive options. For the majority of American women, access means affordability. For women in low- and minimum-wage jobs, dishing out $40 or more a month for birth control is simply not an option. Research has shown that in difficult economic times and when forced to pay out of pocket for birth control, women are more likely to use it intermittently or forgo it all together, increasing their chances of unintended pregnancy. A 2009 study by the Guttmacher Institute showed that as a result of the 2008 economic downturn eight percent of women dispensed with birth control all together and 18 percent used it inconsistently in order to save money.

These cases raise various legal questions to be answered by the courts, as well as serious ethical questions that we must consider. Do we want our bosses interfering in our personal medical decisions? Must we continue to allow reproductive health be the one area of medicine to be adjudicated by the courts instead of our doctors?  If an employer can use their position of power to infringe on access to birth control, what’s stopping them from denying access to other services that don’t suit their fancy? Could Scientologist employers deny access to psychiatric drugs? Could Catholic employers deny coverage for treatment of sexually transmitted diseases? It’s quite a slippery slope.

As it was originally written, the ACA treats family planning as the critical pillar of women’s health that it is. The Obama administration has gone above and beyond to accommodate the beliefs of religious organizations, and the court should now uphold this mandate that helps to make the ACA so transformative for the health of American women.

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Looking to 2014: The Emerging Movement for the Next New Deal

Jan 2, 2014Richard Kirsch

The rise of a new progressive organizing is cause to believe that economic reform and a shift toward broadly shared prosperity are within reach.

The rise of a new progressive organizing is cause to believe that economic reform and a shift toward broadly shared prosperity are within reach.

Thomas Edsall, who now is capping off his long career writing insightfully about the relationship between economics and public opinion as a blogger for The New York Times, concluded a piece in late December by saying, “Progressives are now dependent on the fragile possibility that inequality and socioeconomic immobility will push the social order to the breaking point and force the political system to respond.”

Edsall’s bleak prognosis raises the biggest question facing not only progressives, but the future of our democracy: is the political system in the United States capable of responding to the escalating crisis of stagnant wages, shrinking benefits, dissolving economic opportunity, and disappearing hopes of living anything that resembles the American Dream?

It is a question I ask myself every day. But I reach a different conclusion than Edsall, because for all his powers of observation, he misses the role that people play in changing history. I see a growing movement of Americans organized by progressives who are not waiting for the social order to break, but are instead forcing the political system to respond.

Edsall reaches his conclusion by way of two commentators, my colleague Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute and Harvard economist Ben Friedman. Konczal’s analysis of the quandary is cogent, as he provided “a two part description of the liberal state” in a 2011 post:

#1 you would have the government maintaining full employment, empowering workers and giving them more bargaining power, and #2 you would have a safety net for those who fell through the cracks… I think it is safe to say that liberals have abandoned #1 and doubled-down on #2… Without a strong middle and working class you don’t have natural constituencies ready to fight and defend the implementation and maintenance of a safety net and public goods. The welfare state is one part, complementing full employment, of empowering people and balancing power in a financial capitalist society.

Friedman’s contribution is to point out, as Edsall summarizes, that “during hard times people become less altruistic and more inclined to see the poor as undeserving.” Friedman says that when people are squeezed economically, rather than identifying with those still worse off, they “enter a period of retreat and retrenchment.” That is certainly what we are seeing now, with the government cutting unemployment benefits, food stamps, and a much larger swath of the safety net in a shrinking budget.

On the other hand, Friedman says times of broadly-shared prosperity encourage “greater generosity toward those who, through some combination of natural circumstance, market forces and sheer luck, have been left behind.”

When we look at the big periods of progressive change in the 20th century through this lens, we can ask, are we more similar to the soaring post-World War II middle class that led to the Great Society, or to the wrecked economy that led to the New Deal? After the Great Recession, that’s a no-brainer.

So is Edsall then correct in concluding that the only way to get to the next New Deal is waiting for another disintegration of the economy like we saw after the Great Depression? Or is even that a misreading of New Deal history, in which decades of building a movement of working people laid the groundwork for the New Deal laws that established the right to organize unions, fair labor standards like a minimum wage, and social insurance programs like Social Security and unemployment compensation?

If we have to wait, we’re in big trouble, because as we saw in 2008, we are much less likely to see another collapse like the Great Depression thanks to the progressive accomplishments of the 20th century. The aggressive use of the Federal Reserve and banking regulations prevented a total collapse of the financial system. The safety net – food stamps, Medicaid, etc. – and the social insurance programs of unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare prevented widespread destitution. These measures allowed us to have a Great Recession rather than a second Great Depression.  

But the Great Recession also deepened the three-decade-long trend of families seeing their incomes and lifestyles squeezed by stagnant wages, eroding benefits, and the rising costs of gateways to opportunity. As a result, we are seeing an escalation of the path to the next New Deal: organizing people to demand that we create a 21st century economy of broadly-shared opportunity and prosperity.

The past year saw the explosion of organized fast food workers, from a handful of community-supported walk-outs demanding higher wages a year ago to actions involving thousands of workers and supporters in some 130 cities in December. The growing movement earned national as well as local news coverage.

Less visible, but deeper, is the emergence of new forms of worker organizing, taking place largely outside of traditional unions and the national labor law, known generally as the workers’ center movement. Domestic workers, through the National Domestic Workers Union, have won passage of laws giving them new labor protections in California and New York. Tomato pickers in Florida, under the banner of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have won higher wages by building consumer pressure against the supermarkets and restaurant chains that buy the crops they pick. Immigrant and low-wage workers around the country, at workers’ centers that are part of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, have resisted wage theft and won basic protections in day labor and construction. The examples go on and are analogous to the emergence of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The long-simmering pressure for raising the minimum wage is now becoming a national political force, with Democrats embracing the issue. The passage of a $15 minimum wage in Sea-Tac, outside of Seattle, will be a harbinger of more local actions to define a minimum wage in ways that make sense for people’s lives, not some political calculation about what’s possible.

In New York City, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s reluctance to support paid sick days, siding with the business community, destroyed her support among the progressive base, paving the way for the election of Bill de Blasio, who rose both on his progressive platform and as the result of a decades-long base-building project in the city. These contests will continue to escalate, as we’ve seen in Philadelphia, where a Democratic mayor has twice vetoed a paid sick day ordinance approved by the City Council. As they do, Democrats who take the Quinn route will find themselves on the sidelines with her.

Cultural and demographic trends are encouraging, too. While the progressive politics of the growing numbers of the young, single women, and Latinos have garnered notice, another hopeful trend is that among non-college-educated whites, one of the most conservative groups in the country, the young are much more progressive than their older counterparts. Pope Francis has become an instant hero not just by easing back on his church’s focus on sex, but by directly challenging trickle-down economics.

In all this, history will look at President Obama as a transitional figure. He has pledged to make income inequality the defining issue of the day, but he still chooses a low-wage Amazon warehouse as a venue to address the issue. He still seeks to reconcile the destruction of the middle class with the rise of Wall Street.

Wall Street and K Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all greasing the system while stoking resentment of “the takers” and people of color, in a nation with a deep “it’s up to me and my family alone” streak, remain huge obstacles to building an America that works for all. The change we are making will take time.

What gives me hope is that, for all its flaws, we still live in a nation where popular will can make change. And we have a history of creating change from below and then electing leaders who, like FDR, drilled into the deep well of hope that has given life to the best of America, from the Revolution, through the Civil War, the Progressive era, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Great Society.

Earlier this week, on the last day of 2013, I called up Mike Konczal and asked him to reflect on Edsall’s dark conclusion. Here’s what he told me: “I’m more optimistic than I was when I wrote that piece two years ago. People are agitating, building new infrastructure. Issues like the minimum wage are gaining prominence. We’re seeing mobilizing among non-traditional workers like day-care workers.”

It is up to us to make history. Let’s get to work in 2014. 

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.

 

2014 banner image via Shutterstock.com

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Daily Digest - December 20: Grand Bargain Dreams, Meet Political Reality

Dec 20, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

2013 Was the Year the Grand Bargain Died. Good Riddance. (TNR)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

2013 Was the Year the Grand Bargain Died. Good Riddance. (TNR)

Mark Schmitt argues that striking a budget deal has received so much emphasis because it allows politicians to appear to be outside the usual partisan fights. But that's really just magical thinking, and Congress still needs to figure out how to function.

The Fed Transformed (TAP)

Robert Kuttner looks back at the ways the Federal Reserve has changed under Ben Bernanke, and looks ahead to the challenges facing Janet Yellen. Her task, says Kuttner, is to transform the financial system into one that serves the economy rather than ruling it.

Sen. Reid Gets Agreement For Yellen Confirmation Vote in January (WSJ)

Siobhan Hughes reports that the Senate will hold the Yellen confirmation vote, among others, in the new year. Thanks to this new schedule, the senators will be spared from having to work into the weekend before Christmas - unlike many Americans.

This Chart Blows Up the Myth of the Welfare Queen (The Atlantic)

Jordan Weissmann looks at a chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics comparing the yearly spending of families that use public assistance programs and families that don't. Families receiving assistance have tight budgets, particularly in non-essential categories like entertainment.

The Adjunct’s Lament (In These Times)

Rebecca Burns sees adjunct professors as an example of how even so-called professionals can become part of the "precariat," a class characterized by insecurity. She looks at the difficulties in organizing these groups of workers, particularly when they seek higher wages.

Seattle Mayor-Elect Announces Minimum Wage Task Force (KIRO 7)

Graham Johnson reports that Seattle is taking its first steps toward a $15-per-hour minimum wage. One council member-elect has put a time constraint on the task force's work, stating that she'll start collecting signatures for a ballot initiative if the increase isn't passed quickly.

New on Next New Deal

Farewell to Health Care for America Now

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch writes about Health Care for America Now's closing shop, praising their focus on movement-building and local engagement. This kind of grassroots organizing, says Richard, is key to achieving transformational progressive change.

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Farewell to Health Care for America Now

Dec 19, 2013Richard Kirsch

The campaign that won passage of health care reform is closing up shop, but its grassroots organizing efforts will stand as a model of success for progressives.

The campaign that won passage of health care reform is closing up shop, but its grassroots organizing efforts will stand as a model of success for progressives.

Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the grassroots campaign that powered passage of the Affordable Care Act, is about to close its doors, as planned when the campaign started. But the images it generated of Americans passionately fighting to make health care a right will remain with us for years to come. The new movie Inequality For All includes dramatic footage of an HCAN supporter standing up to a Tea Partier. Another documentary released last year, Escape Fire, has stirring footage of an HCAN rally. Pictures of people holding up HCAN signs or wearing HCAN buttons still appear regularly in news magazines. 

Richard Kirsch at health care reform rallyIt makes great sense that HCAN’s actions have become iconic symbols of the fight for health justice in the United States. From its beginning, the heart of the HCAN campaign was outside the Beltway, its strategy grounded in the firm conviction that we could only win the fight for comprehensive reform if we based our campaign on grassroots organizing outside of Washington. We knew that inside the Beltway, the best we could do is provide a credible voice countering the army of thousands of lobbyists for the health care industry. But outside the Beltway, by organizing ordinary Americans, we could win.

Creating a powerful grassroots force is not easy. It took building a campaign that pushed against the culture of D.C., with the support of a funder that was committed to building progressive capacity, not just winning on an issue. Most national issue campaigns are D.C.-centric, run by campaign operatives, constrained by a narrow band of legislative concerns, with an idea of field work that is narrowly focused on generating earned media and e-mails and phone calls to members of Congress. After a lot of debate, the union and community organizing leaders who built HCAN agreed to spend almost all of its non-paid media resources on field contracts with state-based community organizations and community labor coalitions. These local organizations partnered with the local chapters of national labor unions and netroots groups.

The national strategy and tactics were relentlessly focused on empowering people at the local level to bring their personal passion, and often their personal stories, to their communities and members of Congress. Their work did generate lots of local media and calls to Congress, but it went much deeper than that, building the kind of relationships that are transformational. The campaign’s major funder, the Atlantic Philanthropies, was fully committed to the strategy, believing that even if the legislative effort fell short, their funds would leave in place a more sophisticated and robust capacity for progressive change at the local level. But because Atlantic had faith in the grassroots strategy, both of the foundation’s objectives – passing historic legislation and building capacity – were realized.

While HCAN was always envisioned as a campaign that would end with the passage of legislation, HCAN’s leadership decided to launch HCAN 2.0 to defend the new law after its passage. With many fewer resources, HCAN continued the fight, working on consumer regulations to control insurance premiums, taking part in the public battle around the Supreme Court’s hearing on the ACA’s constitutionality, defending Medicare from privatization, pushing for Medicaid expansion, and always reminding us that the opponents of the ACA are eager to return Americans to the day when insurance companies were fully able to deny them care and jack up their premiums because, indeed, we do get sick.

HCAN is now closing up shop. It may seem a funny time, with the current fracas over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but that is the point. The organization’s campaign mission was to win passage of a law, a mission extended to include “win and secure” the ACA. The debate over the shape of the ACA will continue for years to come – a struggle over how to fix, expand, roll back, or build upon the law. But as each of the millions of Americans who will enroll over the next few months sign up, another nail is hammered in the repeal coffin. Retiring HCAN, its mission accomplished, is another sign that the campaign is keeping its eyes on the prize.

HCAN affirmed my belief that people organizing together can shape history. Paul Starr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of health policy, told me that none of the failed attempts to pass comprehensive health reform had a major, grassroots field component. Earlier this year another noted historian of health reform, Theda Skocpol, published an analysis in which she credited the success of health care reform versus the failure of climate change legislation to HCAN’s deep grassroots strategy, compared with an elite, inside strategy of environmentalists.

It is good to see those lessons being fully embraced by new leadership in the climate change movement, as seen most sharply in the Keystone pipeline fight. The campaign for immigration reform too is powered by a national, grassroots movement led by local leaders who are putting their lives on the line for change. The most energetic new labor organizing is built on helping low-wage workers take local actions, supported by their communities, as part of a growing national effort.

Still, too many issue campaigns and too many funders fail to fully grasp the respectful partnerships and movement-building essential to defeat corporate power and right-wing politics. If we are to make the kind of transformational changes America and the world need, the politics HCAN pioneered, a sharply strategic national campaign built on empowering people through organizations around the country, points the way. 

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: Fighting for Our Health

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Obama Updates His Story About America

Dec 5, 2013Richard Kirsch

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.

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.

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