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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North Carolina Students Push Past Bad News For Good Policy Proposals

Nov 26, 2013Wilson Parker

Members of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network in North Carolina refuse to be discouraged by the state’s bad news, and propose policy changes that would make a difference for their state.

Members of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network in North Carolina refuse to be discouraged by the state’s bad news, and propose policy changes that would make a difference for their state.

North Carolina has been in the news quite a lot recently, and for almost uniformly bad reasons. North Carolinians have watched as their legislature passed one of the nation’s “most wide-ranging” voter ID laws, enacted the “harshest” cuts to unemployment insurance during the recession in the entire country, banned the use of modern science to project sea level rise,  attached a restrictive set of requirements on abortion providers to a motorcycle safety bill in order to ramrod it through, and made a host of other questionable decisions about our state and its future.

But I’m happy to say that students in North Carolina aren’t discouraged. I’ve watched my peers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) – from diverse perspectives – engage with the issues our state is facing. At the UNC chapter of Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network – and at our sister chapters across the state – we’re trying to do our part.  Last year, we published a journal focused on policy issues in North Carolina. The journal was a big success, covering a wide array of policy topics and getting more than 15,000 hits online.

We just finished our second volume and we hope it will be an even bigger success. Like our first edition, it contains a variety of forward-thinking ideas for our state and its future. Here are some quick takeaways:

North Carolina should expand access to Dual Enrollment

North Carolina currently offers high school students the option of taking courses at nearby community colleges and receiving credit towards both their high school diplomas and a college degree. These programs give North Carolinian students skills they can use in the workforce, additional preparation for their college educations, and – by reducing the number of semesters they need to receive a diploma – make it easier for students to complete their college educations. They are especially helpful to low-income students who seek to minimize the financial burden of education after high school.

In our journal, Kate Matthews argues persuasively that North Carolina should expand this program to enhance the effectiveness and equity of its high school programs. Furthermore, because these programs “utiliz[e] available resources rather than funding new initiatives,” expanding them is a highly cost-effective way for the state to improve education in North Carolina.

North Carolina shouldn’t give rapists parental rights

“In 31 states, including North Carolina, a rapist can assert the same custody and visitation rights that other biological parents enjoy.” This may be the journal’s most frightening sentence. But Molly Williams’s article does more than raise awareness about this serious problem: it also offers a solution. Williams suggests that North Carolina should adopt legislation modeled after bills in other states which give courts the option of terminating parental rights if a child was conceived as a result of incest or rape.

Wake County Schools should take a page out of Forsyth County’s book

North Carolina’s Wake County Schools – like its legislature – have been getting the state in the news for the wrong reasons. Many commentators, including Stephen Colbert, have criticized the school district for eliminating its diversity plan.

Students at the Wake Forest chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network have a proposal that will help Wake County meet the needs of all its students. Forsyth County and Wake County have similar needs: both contain major North Carolina cities (Winston-Salem and Raleigh, respectively) and both serve diverse student populations. In order to provide its most ambitious students with a variety of curricular options, Forsyth County created a “Career Center” which offers a variety of Advanced Placement and technical courses. Students remain enrolled at their home high schools but travel to the Career Center for part of the day. Transportation is provided by the school district. Not only does the Career Center expand students’ curricular options; it makes those options available to all students in the district, no matter which high school they happen to attend. The Wake Forest chapter makes the case that Wake County should consider a similar program.

North Carolina should use a “foundation funding” approach rather than a “flat-grant” model to fund its schools

North Carolina’s current funding model for public schools pays for districts’ basic costs, but requires localities to pick up the rest of the bill and makes no allowance for economic differences between districts. Consequentially, Ioan Bolohan writes, “geographic socioeconomic differences lead to inequalities in the resources available to schools” which result in “inadequate funding and disparities in educational opportunities for students.”

Instead, Bolohan argues, North Carolina should adopt a foundation funding model that establishes a minimum tax rate across all school districts and provides state funding on an adjusted basis to make up for economic disparities. This approach, he writes, has improved outcomes and reduced inequality in states as diverse as Ohio, Massachusetts, and Texas. We can only hope North Carolina will be next.

Wilson Parker is a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying Economics and Philosophy. He is Co-President of the UNC Chapter of Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and Editor-in-Chief of the North Carolina Undergraduate Journal of Public Affairs. 

Photo via Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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Daily Digest - November 25: Incivility Isn't One Person's Fault

Nov 25, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Incivility in America - The Millennials: Restoring Civility (Hannity)

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Field Strategist, Joelle Gamble, and Senior Fellow for Economic Development, Azi Hussain, appeared on Fox News, where they drove Sean Hannity crazy by refusing to blame politically incivility on President Obama.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Incivility in America - The Millennials: Restoring Civility (Hannity)

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Field Strategist, Joelle Gamble, and Senior Fellow for Economic Development, Azi Hussain, appeared on Fox News, where they drove Sean Hannity crazy by refusing to blame politically incivility on President Obama.

Bubble in the Making? How the Stock Market Might Not Reflect the Current Economy (PBS NewsHour)

Paul Solman speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal about the disconnect between the soaring stock exchange and the weaker economy, seen in today's still-high unemployment rate. He argues that stocks would be even higher if more people had jobs.

A Sustainable Economic Path (The Hill)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter and Joe Kasputys present a proposal for a reasonable and balanced way to deal with the national debt without crippling the economy through sequestration cuts. Reducing debt can't come at the expense of everything else.

Yes, the Government Should Spend More Each Year (WaPo)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal argues that as the economy grows each year, government spending should grow with it. The country's needs don't shrink with greater wealth, so the GOP's call to "spend one dollar less" doesn't work.

Could Teller Organizing Help Halt Bank Abuses? (In These Times)

Sarah Jaffe reports on new workplace organizing attempts by bank tellers, who are protesting against outsourcing via video conferencing. Video tellers could save money for Bank of America, at the cost of local jobs at their branches.

JPMorgan Says It Broke No Law. So Why Pay The $13 Billion? (NPR)

Jim Zarroli explains how the bank can pay this fine to the Justice Department and still claim that it broke no laws. The public statement was so carefully worded that both sides can spin it into a victory, which means no clear explanation of wrongdoing.

New on Next New Deal

President Obama: Give Millennials a Seat at the Table on Climate Change

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment Melia Ungson argues climate change solutions need to begin locally, and should start involving tomorrow's leaders right now.

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President Obama: Give Millennials a Seat at the Table on Climate Change

Nov 22, 2013Melia Ungson

Solutions to climate change begin at the community level, and tomorrow's leaders must be involved in the planning process today.

Solutions to climate change begin at the community level, and tomorrow's leaders must be involved in the planning process today.

Over the past several months, climate change has finally inched toward the spotlight. President Obama issued a Climate Action Plan in June, and a few months later he directed the EPA to enforce carbon emission limits for power plants. As a recent UN report further solidified that human activity is the cause of climate change, Obama has taken another step toward ensuring that the United States sticks to its international commitments and that the country is prepared to mitigate and adapt to changes at home. Shortly after the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, on November 1, the President issued an executive order, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.” This executive order paves the way for more prepared and resilient communities, but it is no substitute for young people, who will be the leaders of tomorrow, engaging in conversations to reenvision government’s role in addressing climate change.

In the executive order, Obama recognizes first the obligation to leave a healthy planet to future generations, and second that communities are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Added to the urgency is the fact that the communities most greatly impacted by climate change are often those that already contend with other problems, such as weak economies or regional health problems.

According to the White House, the executive order is meant to ensure that the federal government is equipped to effectively support “community-based preparedness and resilience efforts” through policies and investment priorities that advocate preparedness, protect infrastructure, support scientific research, and “protect and serve citizens in a changing climate.” More concretely, this means finding a way to modernize federal agencies and federal programs in order to encourage government at every level to consider climate risks and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

To do this, the federal government is looking to the state and local levels. President Obama has created a task force made of governors, mayors, and tribal and local officials who have volunteered to participate. According to the White House, the task force will provide recommendations on how the federal government can remove “barriers to resilient investments, [modernize] Federal grant and loan programs to better support local efforts, and [develop] the information and tools they need to prepare.”

Far from a government takeover, the executive order calls for the federal government to look to state and local officials to gain insight on how to improve federal programs and better understand how communities can boost preparedness and innovation. Ultimately, the failure to prioritize climate change on the federal level is and will continue to be played out on a local level. This means that the local officials of tomorrow, who are the young people of today, will be forced to contend with changes in their communities and will be responsible for navigating the state and federal programs designed to provide support. Nancy Sutley, head of a White House environmental council, explained that communities are “on the front lines of dealing with the impacts of climate change.” That makes this bottom-up approach critical while the federal, state, and local levels of government incorporate climate change risks into project planning.

This order is an important step in ensuring that government at every level will be better equipped to plan for and address climate change in the future. It will spur greater innovation by encouraging officials in DC and around the country to think creatively by promoting data-sharing and collaboration for informed and coordinated efforts, and by opening a space, through the task force, for officials to come together and provide feedback.

Furthermore, this action is important in building a more vibrant economy and government in the long run. The federal government will continue to be called on to foot the bill for disaster relief after major storms or droughts, to compensate for the effects of ailing infrastructure, and to support communities that are struggling to adapt to climate change. Given this potential for real burdens on the government budget, we cannot wait to act if we want to protect both our communities and our economy. We need to create our own climate insurance of sorts. The steps we take now toward preparation and mitigation could be less costly overall than waiting until the urgency is greater and options more limited.

White House staff understand this need. John P. Holdren, the President’s science advisor, noted how the executive order emphasizes the need to make current investments “produce a much more resilient society.” This future-oriented thinking is essential if we want to effectively address climate change and if we want to fulfill the moral obligation to leave future generations with a healthy planet and resilient communities. More immediately, when Millennials are in positions of power, we know that climate change will be high on the agenda, and therefore understand that it is our generation that will reap the rewards or manage the clean-up of whatever actions we take or do not take in the coming months and years.

Our generation needs to go one step beyond this executive order. This call for a bottom-up approach, for crowdsourcing ideas, feedback, and innovation should extend to Millennials around the country as well. We know we have a huge stake in preparing our communities for the future, and we cannot sit back and wait for our turn to take the reins. A clear next step to the executive order would be to engage youth representatives, students, and young professionals in a task force that would emphasize a forward-thinking approach. To get there, Millennials can take an active role in learning from local officials grappling with climate change impacts as they arise, so that we are more knowledgeable and prepared when the problems are squarely in our hands. Millennials can also take an active role in proposing and testing solutions that will start building stronger communities today. We must take on the responsibility to engage with local officials, harness our creativity and skills, and stay dedicated to a long-term vision. 

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

Hurricane Sandy image via Shutterstock.

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Daily Digest - November 22: This Black Friday, Labor Protests With Your Sales

Nov 22, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Wal-Mart Labor Group Promises 1,500 Black Friday Protests Next Week (Salon)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Wal-Mart Labor Group Promises 1,500 Black Friday Protests Next Week (Salon)

Josh Eidelson speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren about upcoming protests at Wal-Mart. Dorian compares Wal-Mart to General Motors in the 1940s, as a company that works against the economy's best interest today, but could turn around.

New Bill Offers Tax Relief to Keep Students in State (The Michigan Daily)

Shoham Geva reports on a bill that gives Michigan college graduates a tax credit equal to half their student loan payments if they stay and work in state. Recommendations from the University of Michigan chapter of Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network are in the State House version of this bill.

Another Reason for Filibuster Reform: It Will Help Dems Crack Down on Wall Street (WaPo)

Ryan Cooper argues that, having invoked the nuclear option, the Democrats have now given financial reform a better shot at success, because court cases about these regulations go to the D.C. Circuit Court. Filling that bench is what set this whole thing off.

  • Roosevelt Take: Ryan references the Roosevelt Institute's report, An Unfinished Mission, as an example of the kind of regulations that reformers are seeking.

Good Benefits Don't Make Unemployed People Happy About Being Unemployed (Smithsonian Magazine)

Colin Schultz reports on a new study that compares the happiness of unemployed people across the European Union. Stronger benefit programs don't affect life satisfaction - nor do they affect how hard people look for new jobs.

Home-Care Aides at Poverty’s Edge Are Hottest U.S. Jobs (Bloomberg)

Tom Moroney writes about the fastest-growing job in the U.S., personal care aides, and profiles one aide in her work and home life. While their industry is booming, personal care aides are also among the worst paid workers in the country.

The 'Exploitative' Internship Economy (Pacific Standard)

Casey McDermott speaks to intern rights advocate David Yamada about the legal and ethical issues of the intern economy. Yamada is disappointed that some companies choose the lose-lose option of ending internship programs instead of paying minimum wage.

Here's Why Insurers Probably Won't Go Along With Obama's Obamacare Fix (MoJo)

Erika Eichelberger argues that most insurance companies aren't going to reinstate the plans they've already canceled that do not comply with the Affordable Care Act's requirements, because that would cost money. It's possible this fix will mostly serve as political cover.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch argued in favor of the president's decision last week, because it would allow the administration to retain its focus on insuring more Americans.

Dying Sooner: America Falls Behind On Longevity (National Memo)

David Kay Johnston reports on new data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which shows that the U.S. is falling behind its peers on life expectancy. The report blames the country's poor health care system and income inequality.

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