My mother-in-law shared stories this weekend about growing up in the Great Depression. Though her father was a doctor in Ames, Iowa, money was so tight that he’d turn off the engine of his roadster at the crest of hills and coast down to save gas.
“It was unsettling,” she recalled.
She remembers boxes filled with toilet paper rolls stacked around the house, barter from the local grocer in exchange for medical care. And she recalls the hobos who would walk from the nearby train yard and sit on the back stone wall, where her mother fed them.
Things aren’t as awful economically now as they were back then. Unemployment is “only” 10.2 percent, underemployment and unemployment combined about one in every six would-be full-time workers.
In certain ways, though, I suspect things for those really hurting today are worse. From the stories I’ve heard since childhood, most knew pain during the Depression and many people helped those in worse shape.
Today, as Bob Herbert noted this weekend in The New York Times, we live in two societies, or at least two realities. While the upper middle class cheer the rising stock market and the rich reward themselves with obscene bonuses, the young, the unemployed, the poor and the blue collar middle class fall further and further behind. These days, we don’t see many doctors turning off their car engines to coast downhill.
Nobody wants to talk seriously about class in America, but the elites are smiling and perusing their stock portfolios while the checklist of Americans locked in depressionlike circumstances just grows and grows: construction and manufacturing workers, young men without college degrees (especially young black and Hispanic men), teenagers, and those who were already poor when the recession began. The economic climate for all of these groups is an absolute and utter disaster.
As this continues, the signs are growing that the Democratic Party could get hammered in the next Congressional election. Maybe that threat will be a wakeup call for Democrats. Because it is past time for them — or for the president without them — to do more to put Americans back to work.
Economic summits won’t do the trick. Certainly the Republican tax-cut solutions of the past won’t either. The rich get richer, the trickle down never trickles, and the economy gets wrecked.
That is why Barack Obama has to step up. He is a man of eloquence who already has done considerable work to mend this country’s broken international bonds. He’s got to use that eloquence, use it unrelentingly, to mend the economy at home.
It’s true. Obama has been dogged at every step by an opposition that is for little and against nearly everything he proposes. But that can stand as an excuse only so long. This administration has to stop attempting bipartisanship in today’s Congress. It has to stop worrying about splitting the difference, about positioning the Democratic Party for the next election, or it can kiss that election goodbye.
Instead, Barack Obama should be leading those who brought him this far – an American public that knows things are broken, that realizes too many members of both parties believe their job is to get re-elected, that wants real change and that pines for leadership. Thus far, he has failed to deliver that leadership in consistent, forceful and unambiguous terms.
My Democratic friends may consider this judgment harsh. But we’ve spent the better part of a year fiddling over health care while the economy burns. Yes, the two are connected. But it’s time either for the Congress to walk and chew gum at the same time, to pass a health care bill without sitting paralyzed on the economy, or for the president to call them out directly to the American people.
Pull up a chair by the fireside, Mr. President. Look out at the American people. Tell them that the economy and the health care system are broken, that lobbyists filling the coffers of both parties are making it really hard to fix it. Ask the people for their help. Tell them to pressure their representatives, regardless of party. Ask them to help their neighbors and co-workers just as my mother-in-law’s family did during the Depression. Call for real sacrifice and meaningful volunteerism, and help organize ways of delivering it.
Keep delivering these messages day-in and day-out.
As I wrote in my first True/Slant blog, a jobless recovery is none at all. Let’s stop cheerleading for the markets and trotting out optimistic growth numbers that fly in the face of the reality that so many Americans are living. Let’s mobilize this country. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also the only thing Democrats can do if they wish to avoid joining the unemployment lines themselves after the next election, while the rest of us go back to watching Republicans give their rich buddies bigger tax cuts to buy more stocks, give themselves bigger bonuses, and buy bigger homes.
Mr. Obama. Use the bully pulpit of your office. It worked for FDR. It could work again.