Now that he’s shown he can compromise, Obama needs to be tough on passing American Jobs Act
By Barry Gordon 09/15/2011
President Obama made a great speech last week. It had just the right proportion of passion, common sense and righteous indignation. He spoke about the future in clear terms, scoring major points on “the vision thing.” And he even spoke of a subject that is rarely heard in today’s political environment — a justification of the importance of government and our occasional need to have it do big things.
Obama is, of course, right when he speaks about our interconnectedness. He presented a litany of achievements that either would not have occurred or would have been greatly delayed or weakened by the absence of governmental involvement. From the development of the railroads to our national interstate highway system, from land grants to establish public universities to the government-funded research that developed the Internet, government has played a vital role in creating the America that we see today as the richest, most powerful nation in the world. And most importantly, perhaps, government has also played a necessary role in cushioning its people from the arbitrary and sometimes cruel shocks of an unfettered free market by providing an essential social safety net and by ensuring that the products we buy and the workplaces we go to meet at least a minimal standard of safety.
Obama also spoke of the need to protect collective bargaining rights for workers — a subject dear to the heart of this ex-union president. It is not a little ironic that in the 1950s, when the greatest number of industries were organized and the labor movement was at its peak, America also had its most rapid and sustained economic growth, a growth that truly was a rising tide that lifted all boats. Today, that movement, especially in the private sector, has been decimated and, largely as a result, workers’ wages have stagnated or declined in real terms over the last 30 years. Americans have maintained their standard of living only by being a two-worker family, working many more hours or going into debt. The Republicans may love to talk about how the American family (unlike the spendthrift government) has to balance its budget, but the truth is that aggregate consumer debt from home mortgages, car loans, credit cards and everything else is currently somewhere between 90 percent and 100 percent of GDP.
As progressives, I think we know that the president’s heart is in the right place. If he could wave a magic wand, I really believe we would have national health care with a strong public option, a powerful shift in our energy priorities, an even stronger financial regulation bill with real teeth and a whole host of investments in education, research and development and our crumbling infrastructure. He knows that all of these things are necessary for us to do in order to be a competitive nation in the 21st century. But there is a difference between what is necessary and what is possible to achieve, and no one understands that better than Obama. Perhaps too well.
Republicans have demonstrated time and again that they have a very different understanding of compromise. They believe they are compromising by giving the president those things they already agree with. Majority Leader Eric Cantor Tweeted that sentiment right after the president’s speech. He said, “We should work quickly to pass the areas where we agree.” It sounds perfectly reasonable on its face. But the pattern has been for the Republicans to take only those things they agree with and say no to everything else. There is no give and take.
President Obama, wishing to accomplish something, has often allowed the Republicans to play the game their way. He could well do that again by allowing them to cherry pick the American Jobs Act, taking only what they like. The danger is that the result may not be perfect or good. It may be too weak to accomplish the goal of providing a kick start to this economy. Worse, if the act is watered down to the point of being ineffective, Obama will have provided the GOP with more “evidence” that he doesn’t know how to lead. Look how they’ve labeled the original Recovery Act a failure, even though most economists believe that it warded off a far worse depression and saved or created millions of jobs.
The president has a decision to make: Settle for half-measures that don’t solve the problem in the name of bipartisan cooperations, or fight for the whole package and attack every attempt to water it down. He needs to stop banking on the idea that America loves the reasonable man above all else. America loves results. If he reaches a compromise that falls short of achieving his goals, we are more likely to see him as weak rather than reasonable. At this point, he needs to fight, to bring the spirit and the tone of his words to Congress into action. We’ve already seen his ability to compromise and be reasonable. Now we need to see his strength and his resolve. I believe that America is ready to reward that kind of bold leadership. And if not, better to go down fighting.
Barry Gordon, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, is the co-host of “City Beat” on community access KPAS, Channel 55, and teaches political science at Cal State LA.