It's time for Obama to help the economy's real victims

Barack Obama

Image by jamesomalley via Flickr

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.

Writes Herbert:

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.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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12 Responses to It's time for Obama to help the economy's real victims

  1. Mr. Lanson,

    Everyone is in denial about the economic situation in this country, not just Mr. Obama. Everyone is sure that if we can just fix the banks, brokerage firms, and insurance companies the rest will take care of itself. No one is addressing the longer term problems of de-industrialization and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs. What can they do about it?

  2. libtree09 says:

    There is a big difference between then and now. For one Hoover raised the high end of income tax from 24% to 63% to help the economy recover, FDR raised it again to 79% to pay for stimulus programs and then 90% to pay for the war. Like Willie Loman they went to where the money was.

    Obama could not get away with this, in fact he can’t even seem to go after the tax cheaters hiding money in overseas accounts, both private and corporate. So the rich are not even being asked to help their fellow citizens, not that they have shown any interest in anyone but themselves.

    Then FDR indentified the problems with the economic system and fixed them. Obama has ignored the obvious Too Big To Fail for increasing the power of the FED who kept interest rates low encouraging investment from Banks to Stocks. If the broken system is allowed to continue we will face this problem once again.

    Then FDR needed to get our industry on its feet with infrastructure projects that fired up the steel industry, cement and rail. Today we have no industry left, case in point…tapping into wind energy, a good thing, except we have to buy the turbines overseas helping their industry, high speed rail, same story, need steel…China’s is cheaper. Back then we transformed auto plants to war goods in a matter of months…today we couldn’t get armor to our soldiers in four years.

    Then we built things, ships, buses, rail engines and cars, we built the best cars in the world, labor was filled with skilled workers. Today it is hard to find a machine shop worker and docks now just unload foreign goods and we have condos in place of ship building plants. Steel towns are now called rust belts.

    Then we had a garment industry and family farms that just needed to learn soil conservation. Today we have factory farms manned by foreign laborers and send our cotton overseas to a out sourced garment industry.

    We don’t build computers or chips or television sets or stereos or appliances or toasters or pots and pans or lamps or clothes or furniture. We don’t have phone operators or information operators or computer help lines in this country. We are considering outsourcing accounting jobs and we are training market patrons to scan their own groceries.

    Today what we do is buy and Asia is hoping we will continue to buy until their economies have a middle class strong enough to support their economies without us.

    Today we have been told that we are in a service economy. We keep our GDP up with financial services where we bet our meager savings on bets on the stock market where they take our savings and bet on bubbles and insure bets and made side bets insured by underfunded super agencies who survive on a corrupt accounting firms who have stake in approving the pyramid scheme.

    We thrive by betting on the constant rise of our houses while our paychecks remain stagnant generation after generation, but we work harder, the wife works to have the kids raised by strangers and we vote time and again to keep it that way.

    So where can Obama go to find jobs when we do whatever we can to keep profits up by shedding jobs, by getting more work out of fewer people, when half the country doesn’t care or even see and problem.

    Today 20% of the economy comes from federal spending where the military that spends trillions on fighter planes we don’t need and 20% comes from the financial sector that makes nothing. We have shed millions of jobs and corporate America can do without them.

    The economic system in this country is broken. The so called socialist Europe is pulling out of the recession with jobs…less hours for now but jobs. They know a problem and do something about it. We debate and debate and form commission and pay study groups while we bail out the rich.

    There are no jobs. The young already know this, high school graduates who can’t afford college know this, Blacks know this and even illegals are going home.

    We live in the time of the tinkle down economy and Obama won’t be able to change that with fireside chats. Jobs come from factories and the products they produce and that is history.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      This is quite a marvelous essay in its own right. Thanks for posting it. I love what you say but wonder whether things are quite as hopeless as you make them out to be. We have a decaying infrastructure, a collapsing road system (the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, for example, has been closed twice this fall), a deteriorating park system. Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps. Why can’t Obama do the same? If Obama would take on Big Money and Congress head-on might he not convince people to AT LEAST raise taxes on the wealthy to levels that existed under Bill Clinton? These things may not be a solution but they could be a start. I’m not yet willing to say our economy and political system are DOA.

      • libtree09 says:

        Mr. Lanson,

        I voted with hope, for hope, casting a vote for change, for populism, for the past soul of the democratic party, for labor, for jobs, for a bottom to top recovery, for a clarion call for a America that used to be.

        But faced with an opposition that is ignoring reality and our democratic leader that has decided that Clinton’s right leaning love affair with wall street is a good thing, I despair.

        To me Labor is what created this country, our ability to dig into problems with greasy fingers saved Europe and made American values to the forefront worldwide.

        Maybe Obama can still awaken some dormant realization of our potentiality but so far he has only been a lightening rod for the worst of our society.

      • Jerry Lanson says:

        I hear you and agree with much of what you say. But when you say “he’s only been a lightning rod for the worst of our society,” I take issue. He inherited a swamp, stopped total economic collapse, took steps to require this country to act within the law, began to fix international relationships, continues to fight for reformed health care. He has — and here I agree — been really disappointing in his failure to act aggressively, vocally and forecefully in put regular people back to work.

      • libtree09 says:

        Yes, you are right, point taken, should have thought that statement out.

  3. fleetlee says:

    Obama needs to start by getting rid of Geithner and putting someone in Treasury who will stand up to Wall Street and break up these too big to fail banks, like GS, or force them to put money back into the economy by lending to small businesses, not giving out $26 Billion in bonus payments after we saved their butts. Obama needs to lead and soon. I also think the GOP will be hurt in the next election cycle; I think all the incumbents will be blamed and a lot of new faces will show up to see if they can please the voter or they too will be booted at their next reelection cycle until we get Congressmen who will not look to the lobbyists all the time.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      I agree that until the government acts aggressively on regulatory reform within the financial sector, nothing has changed.

  4. andylevinson says:

    RE: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

    Not true at all…..the democrats own the congress and the white house…they can do anything they want any time…..and they would if they didn’t have to be re-elected at home…if they lose their elected job, the easy life ends

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Two points Andy:
      1. That assumes the Democrats are a monolith. In truth, blue dog (conservative) Democrats in the House can and have slowed the president’s agenda as has his penchant to seek Republican votes.
      2. He needs 60 votes in the Senate because of the filibuster. One can nominally argue he has 60 votes. But the 60th is Joe Lieberman, who is a Republican in an “independent” Democrat’s clothing.
      But I’m not making excuses for Obama. He should push much harder, taking on his own party as need be to mobilize Congress on the economy.

  5. westcoastliberal says:

    Obama inherited 8 years of wreckage from Bush, so we need to cut him slack, but the approach to the Bankster’s looting of our economy thus far has been to make those who caused the problem to enrich themselves at the taxpayer’s expense. Unfortunately, Obama had no choice politically than to “go along” with the TARP bailout Bush started, but now he needs to shift gears into a “bottom-up” approach. Make jobs & loans easy to get and interest-free for the unemployed & small business. Throw out the red tape (no SBA!) as was done for the Wall st banksters, and start breaking up the “too big to fail” institutions. Legalize pot nationally & let former tobacco growers grow pot & hemp.

    • libtree09 says:

      westcoast,

      I agree with what you say except for the Small Business Association abolition. It needs lots of reform but it should be used as an engine for jobs, for instance, they should set up a green jobs start up fund, to encourage the small inventors out there and to help companies start up businesses to install solar panels and those new water heaters or gardeners that can replace landscaping with low water plants in the southwest. There is actually a shortage of green workers, so training centers could be set up. If banks are are tightening credit, the SBA could go a long way in releasing some entrepreneur energy.

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