Monday, March 2, 2015

Tom Fina's Letter from Washington, 28 January

To Democrats Abroad
28 January 2015
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus

Obama used his State of the Union address to declare that the United States had turned a page from economic crisis and massive military engagement abroad that would now allow pursuit of the public policy goals that had motivated his first seeking the presidency.

These were achievements that Democrats had been afraid to claim and Republicans had been unwilling to admit.

Those goals centered on remedies for the growing abyss between the rewards for those living by their labor and those living by their capital. His agenda to close that gap is as exhaustive as the complex society in which we live. Central is the call for a reordering of our tax structure to increase the share paid by the wealthy and to decrease the share paid by the middle class. That would make possible greater social services for the working class - paid sick and parental leave, child care, free community college and continued subsidization of college tuition to increase real income for the majority of Americans who have seen it stagnate for the past 15 years.

Beyond that, he reaffirmed his commitment to act to slow climate change, to protect Obamacare, Wall Street regulation and his actions to regularize the presence of millions of illegal immigrants under constant attack by Republicans. He defended his steps to reestablish normal relations with Cuba and warned Congress not to sabotage his negotiations with Iran. And he repeated his call for massive investment in infrastructure, expanding broadband availability and retaining net neutrality.

Faced with the new Republican majority  pledge to roll back his immigration actions, to chop out parts of Obamacare, to impose new sanctions on Iran, to  force approval of the XL pipeline, to water down financial regulation and to make access to abortion more difficult, Obama responded to each with a promise of a veto (nine in all) if it reached his desk.  

The Republican reaction was a predictable: dead on arrival.  But, while they are united in opposition to Obama and his goals, they are deeply divided amongst themselves and further pulled apart by the struggle of their presidential candidates. Those centrifugal forces reduce their ability to govern rather than obstruct.

The near universal Democratic reaction has been to  repent their flight from his policies in the mid-term elections, to close ranks in his support and to see his platform as the framework for the 2016 Democratic campaign. 
The press recognized Obama’s defiant assertion of a liberal national agenda and the feisty confidence with which he laid it out before a hostile Republican majority. The Commentariat agreed that Republicans would have none of it. What was he thinking?

My take is that Obama knew all of that. But, he had multiple aims. First, he expects that by getting his advocacy of these issues before the public across the nation, he will get some bipartisan legislation from Congress and help to move action at the state level - as has been the case for raising the minimum wage in 5 states and expanding Medicaid in 29  states. Second, he is rallying national support for the executive actions that he will take during the remainder of his term on climate, family leave, wilderness protection, healthcare, financial regulation, trade unions, closing Guantanamo, rolling back ISIL, improving police relations with minorities, gun control, pre-K education, equal pay for women.  Third, he hopes to shape the agenda for the 2016 elections, drawing a clear contrast between the Democratic view of a strong federal government as the servant of the people and the Republican view of it as the enemy of the people.

Unlike previous SOTU addresses which were closely held until delivered, Obama embarked on a 3 state 3 speech tour to spell out his agenda in advance. Since TV viewership has been in steady decline as the public has turned to the social media, he followed up with a remarkable set of YouTube interviews (January 22). His TV audience was the lowest in 15 years (32 million) but his message reached almost 10 million more through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter et al.

Like Teddy Roosevelt and his Bully Pulpit and Franklin Roosevelt and his Fireside Chats, Obama is trying to generate public support for major public policies. TR was indefatigable in crisscrossing the nation by rail and lecturing every knot of the curious who came to listen. When he ran for election on the Progressive Party in 1912, its platform foreshadowed our issues a century later.  It called for limits and disclosure of campaign contributions, registration of lobbyists, a national Health Service, social insurance for the elderly, the unemployed and disabled, a minimum wage for women, workers’ compensation for work injuries, an inheritance tax, a Federal income tax, women’s suffrage. He campaigned to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, for government for the middle and working class, for a “living wage” as well as direct election of senators and for a federal securities commission.  Moreover, for TR there was “ greater issue than that of conservation....” While his advocacy of a progressive income tax, popular election of senators and women’s suffrage were all blocked during his presidency, they did became the 16th, 17th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution.

This is a reminder that new public policies in our democracy may require years of public debate but when they resonate with the electorate (e.g. gay marriage), they can become law. It is also a reminder that the great debate today about the gap between stalled middle class income and the exploding wealth of the rich has long been a central political issue with the remedies for the inequity little changed over the past century.

Obama joins the great American liberal reformers calling the nation to fight for the more humane, just and equitable society that is within our grasp.  The rise in his job approval ratings from 38% in September to 50% in late January suggests that his agenda does resonate with American voters.

My December Prediction:

Republicans will claim credit for Obama’s return to prosperity if they don’t kill it with more austerity. 

McConnell, January 7, 2015:

“..we’re finally seeing some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope. The uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”

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