By Jim Miller
Just as he did last summer during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama addressed the issue of economic inequality last week during a speech on the minimum wage and health care, which he delivered in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington D.C. His message was stark and pointed as he told the crowd that, “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.”
Sounding a populist note, Obama decried the fact that American workers at the bottom end of the pay scale are continuing to “work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty” and called the rising level of economic inequality “the defining challenge of our time.”
Even more encouraging, the President specifically referenced fast food workers on the eve of the Fight for 15 national day of action as well as the plight of health care and retail employees. Such open talk about inequality, class, and economic exploitation is long overdue from the President and, one hopes, indicates a welcome embrace of a populist agenda.
That said the speech included no new initiatives. Indeed, rather than pushing for anything really bold, Obama simply reiterated his support for raising the federal minimum wage and then pivoted to a full-throated defense of his health care law. As The Guardian’s coverage noted, “It has become something of a signature of the president’s speeches on the economy for him to deliver rousing remarks about the need to tackle entrenched inequality; critics argue he has proven far less effective at doing anything about it.”
Of course, Mr. Obama’s supporters will immediately jump to his defense, correctly noting that any bold populist agenda put forth by the President would surely be blocked by the predictably recalcitrant, reactionary Republican House. Frequent Obama critic, Paul Krugman, also cautioned against a “cynical” reading of the President’s speech suggesting it may indeed to a sign of better things to come as he rounds out his presidency looking more toward legacy than poll numbers.
But at this point in Obama’s presidency, he has shown himself to be such a thoroughly neoliberal business Democrat that he could do some good in the fight against economic inequality by simply reconsidering aspects of his own bad policy, some of which he reiterated in this speech.
How so you ask?
Here are a few ways:
- Speak the Truth to Power: Don’t just call for raising the minimum wage, take on the employers who won’t pay a living wage. Call out Walmart, McDonald’s, and the other greedy barons of the service economy for what they are rather than talking about the need to lower corporate taxes as he did in this speech. After that, support the Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions to shine an uncomfortable light on the 1% and help change the narrative if nothing else. This would show real political courage and put pressure on the people who need to feel it. It’s time to speak the truth to power rather than continuing to accommodate corporate interests as you have done for your entire administration.
- Really Support Unions: Overtly and forthrightly support the workers and unions demanding better pay and working conditions. Don’t just call on politicians to save working people with better policy, support workers in their efforts to do it themselves. Only when working people have real negotiating power in the marketplace will the deep systemic inequality the President calls the “defining challenge of our time” even begins to be addressed. Don’t just criticize Republican policy for busting unions—support them yourself in real and concrete ways.
- Abandon Your Trade Policy: Stop promoting disasterous trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty (TPP) that fundamentally undermine workers’ rights and the soveirgnty of democratic countries in favor of the neoliberal notion that the market can and should be the driving force that solves all of our problems. To decry economic inequality while trying to pass this horrendous assault on working people is doublethink at best. There is no evidence to suggest that this kind of trade deal “grows exports and works for the middle class.” Instead it will allow for the “export” of jobs and continue to grow corporate profits while hurting workers.
- Reverse Course on Corporate Education Reform: Stop pushing the snake oil of corporate education reform by saying “We know that education is the most important predictor of income today, so we launched a Race to the Top in our schools.” The truth is that your education policy has done absolutely nothing to address the issue of economic inequality because it proceeds from the business class’s favorite fallacy that educational inequality is the primary driver of inequality. All evidence points in the opposite direction–that poverty undermines the education of poor children. Continuing your administration-long obsession with this delusion is hurting rather than helping working class communities, particularly communities of color. It has not and will not work and it diverts our attention away from doing things that will actually help working class folks get better educations like fully funding schools and giving poor students the support services they need to succeed. Your education policy is driven by the ideas of the folks Diane Ravitch calls “the billionaire boys club.” What it is doing is opening up the public education system from K-12 to higher education to privatizers and venture capital while doing nothing to improve education or the economic standing of most Americans. While we have been berating our educators, much of the rest of the world has been investing in theirs. It would be better to follow Finland in this regard rather than Bill Gates.
Thus while I surely support raising the minimum wage and want to share Krugman’s optimism, until Obama changes his own course on key policy issues the jury remains out on whether he is a champion of working people or part of their problem. Nevertheless, progressives need to take advantage of this opening and push the administration hard for bolder and bigger policy ideas. At this point, even turning the conversation in the right direction is a sign of progress.