President Obama has taken the midterm election rebuke like Austin Powers a shag, seemingly rejuvenating him in his quest to secure his legacy. He has already taken bold action on immigration, the environment, Net Neutrality and tax reform and yesterday sought to take his due credit for the recovering economy; undermining the GOP Senators and Congressman trying to rewrite history yet again. The speech was an impressive display of populist rhetorical spin, challenging the country to address its growing inequality and reward middle class families for their hard work and resilience in the face of economic disaster, six short years ago.
There are a lot of positives to take from a speech that was high on rhetoric but low on actual policy recommendations. The call to eliminate tax shelters for the rich and corporates should be applauded along with the stated desire to provide tax relief for the middle class (though the poor could probably use some as well). Investment in 21st century infrastructure, research and development, new energy, and education and training to cultivate a more highly skilled workforce all comport with the notion of the New New Deal I have been advocating for a few years now. In fact, the general populist tenor of creating a more equal society is one that this country needs to hear over and over again until it settles into the collective conscious in a way that can render change possible.
Free community college is also something to cheer about, though it must be coupled with student loan relief to be truly effective in improving the prospects of college graduates at all levels. The call for more regulation of the banking industry is welcome, though specific mechanisms to stop GOP obstructionism will be necessary, and it is hard to see pragmatic ways for this to happen in the current political alignment. Suggestions like guaranteed paid sick leave and maternity leave are nice, but more fundamental changes will have to occur if we are to more justly spread both the benefits and costs of the economy we live in today. Raising the minimum wage, pay equity, revival of OT protection and tax credits for more affordable child care, on the other hand, are the kind of policies that can make “middle class economics” a successful route back toward the country that relatively equally shared its economic prosperity during the economically halcyon days that continued from the end of World War II \ until the first oil crisis in 1973.
Beyond the positives, there was one area that should be troubling to progressives everywhere – the call for renewed fast-track trade authority. This is the same tired old neoliberal ideology that has caused increased poverty and inequality across the globe for at least 25 years now and one that must be stopped if real positive social change is to ensue. That Obama continues to push this agenda in education, regulation of Wall Street and international trade reminds us that his achievements will forever be tempered by his failure to truly challenge entrenched power in the country, as he once promised to do. And his inability to completely eradicate us from Iraq, Afghanistan or the Bush war on terror legacy should be equally upsetting to most.
In the end it was a good speech from a President who has given a lot of great speeches, but who has failed to live up to the early promise he offered to radically change the way Washington DC works. That he has finally decided to fight for what he believes in once again should give us hope that change is ultimately possible, even if it will take other men and women to realize that change in full.