Americans Are Better Off Than We Were Eight Years Ago

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Right now, Democrats appear to be at each other's throats. However, it's highly likely that a month from now, the party will come together just as it did in 2008. The fight this fall will be between two candidates, yes, but also two vastly different understandings of our national narrative, of the course of our development over the past several decades and, in particular, the last eight years.

In two recent commencement speeches, one at Rutgers and the other at Howard, President Obama deftly laid out the differences. He defined a progressive understanding of our collective path that has the virtue not only of being accurate, but also of being one that will help progressive candidates win election this fall and beyond.

The president's take may be more nuanced than that of Mr. Trump, but that's more about Trump than anything else. In a nutshell, the Obama argument is this: Although we've got more work to do to improve opportunity and increase justice for all Americans, we have made real progress, we're moving in the right direction, and we are significantly better off than we were in the past.

In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago.

And he's right. Digging into the details, he continued:

And by the way, I'm not -- set aside 150 years ago, pre-Civil War -- there's a whole bunch of stuff there we could talk about. Set aside life in the '50s, when women and people of color were systematically excluded from big chunks of American life. Since I graduated [from college], in 1983....crime rates, teenage pregnancy, the share of Americans living in poverty -- they're all down. The share of Americans with college educations have gone way up. Our life expectancy has, as well. Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks in business and politics. (Applause.) More women are in the workforce. (Applause.) They're earning more money -- although it's long past time that we passed laws to make sure that women are getting the same pay for the same work as men. (Applause.)

Meanwhile, in the eight years since most of you started high school, we're also better off. You and your fellow graduates are entering the job market with better prospects than any time since 2007. Twenty million more Americans know the financial security of health insurance. We're less dependent on foreign oil. We've doubled the production of clean energy. We have cut the high school dropout rate. We've cut the deficit by two-thirds. Marriage equality is the law of the land. (Applause.)

Note that even as Obama highlighted progress on gender equity, he also reminded us that progress is not perfection, and called for continued efforts to achieve full equality. There's one other thing the president did not mention, but which is of crucial importance in understanding the achievements of his administration in terms of progressive economics. The federal tax code has become significantly more progressive than it was eight years ago, and is overall more progressive than it has been since before Reagan's presidency, with the top 1% paying their highest effective tax rates since 1979.

On income taxes, we've brought rates on the top couple of percent back to where they were in the 1990s (where they were after being raised in 1990 and 1993), while locking in the income tax rate cuts for those below that level put in place by George W. Bush. In 1989, the top income tax rate was 28 percent. Starting January 1, 2013, it stood at 39.6 percent.

On capital gains taxes, Obama increased the rate paid by those in the top bracket by 5 percent, and also added a separate 3.8 percent increase -- the funds from which go to Medicare -- to the rate paid by those in the top three brackets. Additionally, Obamacare included a separate, broader income tax surcharge of 0.9 percent on higher-income households. And those Obamacare-related tax increases don't go into the general budget -- a good chunk of which gets spent on things like defense and corporate subsidies -- it goes right back out the door to lower-income families in the form of premium subsidies that help buy health insurance. As Paul Krugman pointed out, Obamacare represents "an important redistributionist policy -- the biggest such policy since the 1960s."

Finally, three days after the President's Rutgers speech, the administration announced new overtime rules that will make an estimated 12.5 million working Americans eligible for overtime pay if they exceed 40 hours of work in a given week. Going back to Krugman, he called them "a pretty big deal."

It will take a long time to undo the increases in income inequality that we've seen since Reagan took office. The Obama tax changes, however, are unquestionably a step in the right direction, one that should have a real impact over time. Moreover, recent data shows that, in addition to overall wage growth improving, wage growth has been even stronger at lower-income than higher-income levels. According to one measure: "On a rolling twelve-month basis, [the past year] marks by far the best relative performance among non-college educated workers going back to 1997."

To return to the larger narrative of progress, let's start with the obvious: Anyone who wants to go back to the 1950s either likes the idea of a society dominated by straight, white, Protestant men, or is forgetting about that reality.

At the Howard speech, the president's presentation of the American narrative included more of a focus on how life for African Americans has improved over time. He cited the importance of the changes to law that the civil rights movement won, and continued: "those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better." Obama added:

America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college.

[snip] I graduated in 1983. New York City, America's largest city, where I lived at the time, had endured a decade marked by crime and deterioration and near bankruptcy. And many cities were in similar shape. Our nation had gone through years of economic stagnation, the stranglehold of foreign oil, a recession where unemployment nearly scraped 11 percent. The auto industry was getting its clock cleaned by foreign competition.

[snip] Since that year -- since the year I graduated -- the poverty rate is down. Americans with college degrees, that rate is up. Crime rates are down. America's cities have undergone a renaissance. There are more women in the workforce. They're earning more money. We've cut teen pregnancy in half. We've slashed the African American dropout rate by almost 60 percent, and all of you have a computer in your pocket that gives you the world at the touch of a button. In 1983, I was part of fewer than 10 percent of African Americans who graduated with a bachelor's degree. Today, you're part of the more than 20 percent who will. And more than half of blacks say we're better off than our parents were at our age -- and that our kids will be better off, too.

Of course, Obama recognizes that we've still got work to do on the matter of racial injustice and inequality:

Yes, our economy has recovered from crisis stronger than almost any other in the world. But there are folks of all races who are still hurting -- who still can't find work that pays enough to keep the lights on, who still can't save for retirement. We've still got a big racial gap in economic opportunity. The overall unemployment rate is 5 percent, but the black unemployment rate is almost nine. We've still got an achievement gap when black boys and girls graduate high school and college at lower rates than white boys and white girls. Harriet Tubman may be going on the twenty, but we've still got a gender gap when a black woman working full-time still earns just 66 percent of what a white man gets paid. (Applause.)

We've got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. This is one area where things have gotten worse. When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars. Today, there are about 2.2 million. Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.

Despite these continued inequities, and despite the problems that remain in our society, Obama emphasized that while the present day may not be paradise it sure as hell is better than what came before -- for African-Americans and for Americans more broadly:

If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn't know ahead of time who you were going to be -- what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you'd be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you'd be born into -- you wouldn't choose 100 years ago. You wouldn't choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You'd choose right now. If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, "young, gifted, and black" in America, you would choose right now. (Applause.)

In both speeches, President Obama took aim at the presumptive Republican nominee -- without mentioning his name. On the idea that we need someone who will "make America great again:"

Point number one: When you hear someone longing for the "good old days," take it with a grain of salt. (Laughter and applause.) Take it with a grain of salt. We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history. We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the courage of generations who came before. But I guess it's part of human nature, especially in times of change and uncertainty, to want to look backwards and long for some imaginary past when everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all politicians were wise, and every kid was well-mannered, and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.

Guess what. It ain't so. (Laughter.) The "good old days" weren't that great.

Conservatives have long attacked President Obama over his views of our historical development. Among countless other examples, on July 16, 2012, Rush Limbaugh said that the President "despises the country and the way it was founded and the way in which it became great." Having read almost every word Barack Obama published or uttered publicly through mid-2012, and much of the rest since then, I can tell you that such a patently false statement only confirms Senator Al Franken's measured, sophisticated assessment of Limbaugh.

What Obama has provided in these remarks and over the course of his public life is a truly inclusive narrative, one that recognizes the ideals at our nation's core, the ways in which we've fallen short of them, and the steps we've taken to overcome those shortcomings. Here's how he described that narrative on July 4, 2012:

On that July day [in 1776], our Founders declared their independence. But they only declared it; it would take another seven years to win the war. Fifteen years to forge a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Nearly 90 years, and a great Civil War, to abolish slavery. Nearly 150 years for women to win the right to vote. Nearly 190 years to enshrine voting rights. And even now, we're still perfecting our union, still extending the promise of America.

And in his second Inaugural Address, Obama again connected our founding values to the movements and activists who fought and bled to ensure that we lived up to them:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

This is the kind of nuanced understanding of our country that can appeal to Americans of every stripe. Given that being American is the only thing that connects all of us who live here to one another, the only bond with any kind of cultural and historical content that can cross all the other group lines that divide us, we need a workable concept of Americanness and of our collective history. As I've written elsewhere:

A history that emphasizes only our crimes and ignores the progress is but the mirror image of one that does the opposite -- one that presents our history as one solely bathed in glory and righteousness. And if those are the only two options, many middle-of-the-road Americans, in particular whites but others as well, are likely to be more attracted to the Pollyanna-ish view simply because it sounds more familiar and feels better.

We progressives have to make sure that we present a balanced picture. That way we can get those people who sometimes forget about the crimes to remember them and to commit to reversing their effects, rather than dismiss our criticisms as "anti-American" because we [supposedly] talk only about the negatives in our country. We have to present our case as representing the true American values, and contrast them to the values of those whom we oppose.

At Howard, Obama summarized the narrative of our history--as well as how it relates to the course of our future. He described:

The evolution of America--the course by which we became bigger, stronger, and richer and more dynamic, and a more inclusive nation.

But America's progress has never been smooth or steady. Progress doesn't travel in a straight line. It zigs and zags in fits and starts. Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody. It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps forward, it feels like we take one step back.

But progress is bumpy. It always has been. But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation's hallmark. I'm fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." (Applause.) It bends towards justice. I believe that. But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own. It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.

[snip] Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country -- (applause) -- that is not just a betrayal of our values -- (applause) -- that's not just a betrayal of who we are, it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism. Suggesting that we can build an endless wall along our borders, and blame our challenges on immigrants -- that doesn't just run counter to our history as the world's melting pot; it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe. That's how we became America. Why would we want to stop it now? (Applause.)

Finally, although it does not directly bear on the discussion of our historical development, there is one other section of the Howard speech to emphasize as both especially important, and as central to Obama's take on America, in particular given Trump's disproportionate appeal to racially resentful white men. It is a call for empathy, about being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand that person's perspective--even if one disagrees with the policy positions to which that perspective gives rise. He was talking to African Americans directly, but my hope is that hearing him say this to African Americans encourages each of us to apply the lesson to our fellow Americans of every background:

But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling -- the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.

President Obama is not on the ballot this fall, but he has been the dominant political figure of the past eight years. When we go to cast our votes for president in November, the fundamental question is whether we want a president who will, by and large, share the policies and vision of Barack Obama, or one who in addition to being a hateful, uninformed, groper of a fascist who would destroy our position in the world, fundamentally rejects them - -not merely on matters like the size of government, but in every imaginable sense.

Do we want to continue moving forward, continue the progress we've made, and keep fighting to make things better--or do we turn the keys over to Donald Trump? That's what this election is about.