Wednesday July 31, 2013

On top of voting 38 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act -- "Obamacare" -- tea party Republicans in the House of Representatives are gearing up for more obstruction and economic nihilism this fall. For one thing, they want to continue into the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 the mindless and indiscriminate across-the-board spending reductions known as sequestration.

In addition, Republicans are again threatening to use the debt ceiling limit -- something which used to be raised as a matter of course -- as political blackmail, all to the detriment to the nation. This time they are threatening to block an increase in the government’s borrowing limit, and create a financial crisis, if Congress allocates money to implement Obamacare.

Many of us have thought it long overdue that President Obama fight back -- fiercely -- against this obstructionism, which puts party ahead of country and which has slowed the economic recovery. The president needs to remind the American people of the types of investments that need to be made to ensure long-term prosperity, measures to promote the economic health of the middle class and to ensure the possibility of social mobility for those who would like to rise from poverty to the middle class.

He also needs to fight back against the myth that fiscal austerity is necessary during a recession -- it has failed in Europe -- and that spending is out of control -- in fact, federal spending and deficits are going down. He also needs to counter GOP fearmongering about Obamacare.

It seems the president has figured this out. On July 24, Mr. Obama gave a major economic speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.; he followed it up with shorter speeches on the same topic at the University of Central Missouri and at the port of Jacksonville, Fla., and on Saturday in his weekly radio address.

In Galesburg, the president noted that the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled between 1979 to 2007, "but the typical family’s incomes barely budged."

Such rising inequality and stagnating income lead to decreasing social mobility, which in turn makes it harder to solve problems like racial tension, climate change, and immigration.

"If we just stand by and do nothing in the face of immense change, understand that part of our character will be lost," he said. "Our founding precepts about wide-open opportunity, each generation doing better than the last - that will be a myth, not reality. The position of the middle class will erode further. Inequality will continue to increase. Money’s power will distort our politics even more."

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Obama said Washington has taken its focus off of what really matters.

"An endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals shift focus from what needs to be done," he said. "And as Washington prepares to enter another budget debate, the stakes could not be higher. The choices we make now will determine whether or not every American has a fighting chance in the 21st century."

The program he is laying out is a strategy which builds on the foundations of what it takes to be middle class in the U.S. and what it takes to work oneself into the middle class. "Good jobs that pay good wages. An education that prepares our children and our workers for the global competition they’ll face," Mr. Obama said. "Homeownership that’s based on a solid foundation, where buyers and lenders play by the same set of rules. Affordable health care that’s there for you when you get sick. A secure retirement even if you’re not rich. More chances for folks to earn their way into the middle class as long as they’re willing to work for it."

Lest this sound too general, like a well-intentioned but vague laundry list, the president said he would lay out specific details in speeches around the country in coming weeks. Indeed, at the port of Jacksonville earlier in the week, the president did just that. Few seem to know about it, but the Panama Canal is being significantly widened and in a couple of years supertankers will be coming through it that can hold three times the amount of cargo than standard tankers.

"If we want our workers and businesses to compete, then our ports have to be ready to receive those supertankers. Otherwise, they’ll go to Brazil or some other place," he said. "So that’s why last year I acted without Congress, and I took executive action to speed up the permitting process that gets workers breaking ground on projects like this one (at Jacksonville)."

On Tuesday, in an economic address in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Obama challenged Republicans to accept a new fiscal deal to cut corporate tax rates in exchange for more government spending on jobs programs.

We hope Mr. Obama persists with this program of setting out the economic truth and common-sense proposals for the rest of his presidency. There will be few moments of instant accomplishment in this polarized environment. This will be a long battle of good versus bad ideas and a struggle of common sense over ideology.

The president said at Galesburg that "the only thing I care about is to use the remaining 1,276 days of my term to make this country work for working Americans again."

We hope he means it, for the truth of what works and what made this country great is on his side. Indeed, investment in infrastructure and education and research used to be bipartisan ideals and practices in this country. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, spent money on the Transcontinental Railroad and land grant colleges and on widening canals and ports.

"When we think about our own communities -- we’re not a mean people; we’re not a selfish people; we’re not a people that just looks out for ‘number one.’ Why should our politics reflect those kinds of values?" Mr. Obama asked. "That’s why we don’t call it John’s dream or Susie’s dream or Barack’s dream or Pat’s dream -- we call it the American Dream."

~ Mark E. Rondeau