Amid a Painful Economic Meltdown, Will Obama Be Bold Enough to Win?


Voters may not follow every twist and turn of the election -- they may not brush up on each of the candidates' policy proposals -- but they know when they're hurting economically, and almost unprecedented numbers now say the country is on "the wrong track."

The Bush years have been bad. In fact, as economist Jared Bernstein noted, when one compares the economic peak of the past cycle, in 2000, with the high point of the business cycle that just ended in 2007, households in the middle actually lost ground, earning $300, adjusted for inflation, less than they did in 2000. The worst this group had done in previous business cycles occurred during the 1970s, when median income "only" increased by about $2,000. In comparison, the income for a family in the middle rose by almost four grand during the 1990s.

It's the first time since they started keeping records of family income after World War II that the economy has gone into a recession before the middle class, those iconic "American families" that dominate our political discourse, had rebounded fully from the previous downturn. That represents an immensely painful double-dip for those in the middle and at the bottom -- only those in the top fifth of the economic ladder have seen any gains whatsoever since the last recession (officially) ended in 2001. (The wages of the bottom fifth fell by 6 percent, while those in the top 1 percent saw their incomes rise by about 50 percent during what some conservative pundits have called the "Bush Boom").

But it's important to understand that Bushenomics only represents an extreme iteration of the ideology that's prevailed since the 1973 energy crisis and the dawn of the "Reagan Revolution." The pain that working America feels today is the culmination of a far longer trend. An analysis by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez offers perhaps the most compelling indictment of neoliberal economics. They sliced and diced the American economy, going back to the beginning of the last century, and they found that between 1973 and 2003, despite several periods of healthy growth, the average real income of all but the top 10 percent of the economic ladder -- 9 out of 10 American families -- actually fell by about 4 percent over those 30-plus years. Meanwhile, the incomes of the top 10 percent of American households increased by around two-thirds.

It's a unique moment in history, with the country facing a deep, structural energy crisis, with a tattered reputation and dwindling influence abroad and a sputtering economy at home. But in moments of crisis, there is often opportunity. The public now appears to be uniquely receptive to a bold progressive agenda, more so than at any other point in recent memory.

The question that will be answered over the coming weeks is how aggressive the Obama campaign will be in articulating such an agenda -- whether a campaign that has moved to a steady but generic drumbeat of "change" can widen the discussion from the failures of the Bush administration to the disastrous consequences of the larger conservative project over the past 30 years and offer the voters some concrete proposals to restore Americans' tattered sense of economic security.

What Kind of "Change" Are We Talking About?

The neoliberal project -- the idea that business, when largely unregulated, has some sort of magical virtue that renders the idea of a healthy social safety net a quaint but antiquated notion -- has failed, and done so spectacularly over a long period of time.

Noam Chomsky has said (and I'm paraphrasing) that for the adherents of neoliberalism, the answer to each and every one of its failures is more neoliberalism, and John McCain epitomizes that approach. His economic prescriptions are as simple as they are familiar: Cut taxes for top earners, privatize as many chunks of the public sphere as possible, and let "the market" deal with whatever dislocations result. To keep the masses from becoming unruly, throw some crumbs their way -- job retraining, trade "adjustment assistance," maybe a grudging increase in the minimum wage (actually, McCain has voted 19 times against raising the minimum).

McCain's problem is that the American people aren't so ideologically rigid. Over the past year or two, an extensive body of public opinion research has shown that Americans -- including those crucial white working-class voters who have been largely loyal to GOP candidates since their benevolent Saint Reagan told them that government was the problem -- are hungry for real, substantive change in our nation's economic course.

That hunger runs deep. According to the American Dream Survey -- a study of the non-managerial workers who make up about 80 percent of the workforce -- released last month, Barack Obama, who's already polling well among that group, "can capture even greater support amongst working voters, including 'Reagan Democrats,' as well as the emerging Obama Republicans with a program of economic populism."

The study found that an overwhelming majority of working people -- about 8 in 10 -- think it's becoming harder and harder to attain the "American Dream" -- defined as "jobs with pay that can support a family, access to quality health care, chances for your children to succeed, and a secure and dignified retirement." (Respondents were far more pessimistic this year than they were last year, when I wrote about the annual survey in some detail.)

What's most striking about the results is the degree to which these working-class voters -- the subject of so much discussion on the TV gab shows during this election season -- explicitly reject the Reaganite economic principles that have held so much sway over both parties over the past three decades. They say, explicitly, that they want the government to take an active roll in protecting their interests; according to the study, "Working Americans believe government can help (them) achieve the America Dream but has failed to do so over the past 8 years." Eight out of 10 respondents said the best way to restore the American dream is for the government to "guarantee access to health care for all Americans"; a similar number says that "government (should) make sure employers keep their promises to employees, including protecting their pensions and health care."

One of the crucial takeaways from the survey is that so-called "Reagan Democrats" -- a constituency that has been easily swayed by conservative messages on social issues -- are up for grabs in this election. As the authors note, "A shift in voting behavior among Reagan Democrats could signal a transformation in U.S. politics and the end of the conservative era that Ronald Reagan began."

Those attitudes were confirmed by a poll of "middle-class families" released by the Drum Major Institute last month. It found broad support for key policies that might rebuild the working class, even among Republicans and even among those who say they plan to vote for the GOP ticket in November:

Despite media depictions of a sharp red and blue divide, the nation's middle class displays broad consensus on a range of public policies aimed at easing their economic squeeze: They support a universal national health insurance plan, requiring employers to provide paid family and medical leave, making it easier for employees to join labor unions and allowing bankruptcy judges to change mortgage payments to keep homes out of foreclosure. A majority of middle-class adults -- whether they are Democrats, Republicans or independents and whether they are supporters of John McCain or Barack Obama for president -- believe that these policies represent good ideas for the country.
Looking at these trends, veteran Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Andrew Baumann released a memo in August that concluded that voters today see parallels with the 1930s, and they want bold proposals, reminiscent of FDR's New Deal, to restore their sense of economic security. Greenberg and Baumann noted that the depth of dissatisfaction with our current economic course is almost unprecedented, and that the country is undergoing fundamental and historic changes. The key finding was that voters are unmoved by proposals that tinker around the edges of the problems America faces today. "This belief that the country is undergoing fundamental change," they argued, "combines with the depth of pessimism voters currently feel about the direction of the nation to create an opening for candidates who can offer major changes and a bold new direction for the country. Just 35 percent of voters say we can solve America's problems with minor changes, while nearly two-thirds believe it will take 'major changes' to bring about solutions."

According to their polling, bold economic proposals can compete head-to-head with McCain's emphasis on his heroic resume, his full-throated defense of American power and his promise of protection in what he frequently calls a "dangerous world." Greenberg and Baumann found that voters see a clear and direct connection between restoring the economic strength of the country and its standing as a shining "city on the hill" -- a leader of the "free world."
A remarkable 82 percent find truth (nearly half finding a great deal of truth) in the idea that America's greatness is waning because of the decline in the middle class and that a "dramatic change" in our economic policies is required to reverse the situation. Moreover, 85 percent find truth (43 percent a great deal of truth) in the idea that the decline of the middle class is "reducing our standing in the world (and) leaving our way of life under assault."
Can Obama Deliver?

Obama's economic prescriptions are significantly more far-reaching, and more progressive, than those ultimately enacted during the Clinton administration.

He supports most of the key policy proposals cooked up in Democratic circles in recent years, including calls for a shift toward "fair trade," support of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would allow workers to join a union without fear of reprisal from their bosses, and the cornerstone the "green jobs" program that advocates say would create millions of new, well-paying jobs while weaning the United States off hydrocarbons.

It would be wrong to dismiss those proposals as just so much centrist tinkering -- they're not -- but it's also true that with very few exceptions, progressive thinkers outside the orbit of the Democratic Party have criticized them as coming up short, either because of their fundamental design or due to insufficient funding (and, in some instances, their vagueness).

But in a political climate in which perception often outweighs policy, the question remains whether Obama, who is a genuine mediator at heart and firmly believes in bringing all sides of an issue to the table to work out a compromise, can articulate the kind of new approach for which Americans hunger right now.

There have been some positive signs -- signs that the campaign gets it -- in recent weeks. During his nomination acceptance speech, Obama referred to "that old, discredited Republican philosophy -- give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is: You're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- even if you don't have boots. You're on your own. Well it's time for them to own their failure."

It remains to be seen whether the campaign keeps hitting that message consistently, and hard, and, if so, how that will play with Obama's image as a "post-partisan" candidate. But it's clear that given the choice between culture war and class war, there are a lot of low-hanging votes out there that can be won over by unapologetically opting for the latter.

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