After more than two decades of rough-and-tumble politics in the labor movement and countless occasions on which I've listened to elected officials try to present an inspiring vision for the country, I'm not easily impressed or energized by a speech.
But I thought President Obama's State of the Union address was one of the most important and insightful pieces of political oratory in a long time.
Here are three reasons why:
1. The speech was brilliant in framing how America works. President Obama consistently packs more intellectual content into his speeches than almost any other politician on the American stage. He didn't dumb himself down in the State of the Union, even though he was talking to the broadest possible audience.
In this case, he effectively held up what is best about America while also being honest about our shortcomings. We have so many flaws in our system. There's no point in sugar coating that. And yet we have incredible resilience as a nation.
Our country makes decisions based on a pluralistic form of government, and when you get down to the substance of politics, it's not clean and easy. As Obama said:
"Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is....
"But I also know this: If people had made that decision [to play it safe and avoid telling hard truths] 50 years ago or 100 years ago or 200 years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard, to do what was needed even when success was uncertain, to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren."
One could argue that Obama was trying to be political and to cover for how half-assed the health care debate came down. But to have the president talk about American values in a way that wasn't idealized, and instead recognized the hard realities of democracy, was refreshing and on-target.
2. Secondly, the proposals in the State of the Union were also brilliant. I don't think this has been properly acknowledged. These were more than band-aid approaches to dealing with the recession. Instead, the agenda that President Obama laid out represents the first comprehensive attempt we have seen from Washington to try to address the true structural problems in our economy.
If President Obama had put any one of his economic proposals forward by itself, one could have easily contended that it would not have been a comprehensive enough approach. But what was powerful about the agenda was that he laid out a strategy for using each of the tools the government has to leverage the private sector--tax policy, regulation, and investment--to realign our politics in a way that everyone benefits.
The President made a constructive nod to some legislation that is already on the political map, pushing the Senate to pass versions of already-passed House bills on jobs and financial reform. With regard to regulating Wall Street, he rightly noted, "the lobbyists are trying to kill [the House legislation]. But we cannot let them win this fight. And if the bill that ends up on my desk does not meet the test of real reform, I will send it back until we get it right."
The president likewise called out the senators on jobs: "People are out of work. They're hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay."
He then broke newer ground in his explanation of how the government can use tax policy. Most people don't realize that we've been living under a tax code, going back to the Reagan era, through which we pay businesses to take their industries offshore and do nothing to urge the private sector to create domestic jobs. We desperately need to break with the madness that says, "We want to create a vibrant economy," and yet measures the state of the economy based only on corporate balance sheets, with no attention to whether it actually benefits working people.
President Obama acknowledged this fundamental problem:
"We can't afford another so-called economic 'expansion' like the one from the last decade -- what some call the 'lost decade' -- where jobs grew more slowly than during any prior expansion, where the income of the average American household declined while the cost of health care and tuition reached record highs, where prosperity was built on a housing bubble and financial speculation."
In response he proposed tax policies that represent a significant break from what we've seen in the past thirty years. He argued, "it is time to finally slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas, and give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs right here in the United States of America."
Specifically, this means two things. First, it means tax breaks for small businesses. President Obama is correct in mentioning that these--and not corporate America--are where most new jobs start. Making that distinction is an important part of breaking with a shortsighted view that sees business as a monolithic entity with a single set of interests. It's not, and progressive policy-making needs to be grounded in a more sophisticated understanding of the economy.
Second, it means providing explicit incentives for these small businesses to do the right thing. Government's role, President Obama argued, is to "create the conditions necessary for businesses to expand and hire more workers." In contrast to the idea that deregulation and untargeted tax breaks will lift all boats, the president put forth a far more incisive proposition: Let's directly reward employers when they hire new people or raise wages. That's exactly the right move.
Finally, the State of the Union combined these changes in regulation and tax policy with a proposal for public investment. This included a much-needed call to "put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow" and to create employment by "building clean energy facilities--[as well as to] give rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy-efficient, which supports clean energy jobs."
The President was aware that he will be attacked for these proposals. The left will say they are too little. The right will say they go too far. I think there is some truth to the idea that these proposals don't go far enough--some of them could be considered boutique initiatives, and none of the policies will fix America wholesale. But they move us in the right direction.
For the first time since FDR, we have a president who is bold and unafraid of controversy. I think that if President Obama had extended himself any further, his agenda would not have been seen as believable--because it would have been an overstepping of what his real field of influence is as president in America.
3. This brings me to my last point. After laying out a very rational set of policy proposals, President Obama made a skillful political move by saying to Republicans, if you don't agree, at least lead. With regard to health care, he stated, "if anyone from either party has a better approach... let me know. I'm eager to see it."
By standing up for his initiatives and for the idea of constructive leadership, he challenged members of his own party to enter into their midterm election campaigns emboldened--not to run away from the president.
However, what the President left out of his State of the Union is what's ultimately going to push his agenda forward. What he did not discuss is the role of mass social movements.
As we learned from the health care debate, it's not 60 votes in the Senate that ensures progressive action. We can have a president with vision, policy chops, and the values to move the country in a more compassionate and fair direction. And yet, in the absence of a strong labor movement and mobilized progressive constituencies, we will have neither the political space nor the will to realize the kind of vision put forward in the State of the Union.
In A New New Deal, David Reynolds and I argue that labor-community coalitions that have formed at the local and regional level are ten years ahead of national groups in figuring out the strategy needed to push this agenda forward. Quite simply, it involves organizing the progressive constituencies that aren't organized, mobilizing the constituencies that are, and building the permanent political structure needed to maintain coalitions between the two.
The president gave us a set of initiatives last night that could lend itself to precisely this work of creating mass alliances. But we would be fooling ourselves if we think we are going to get the policies we need to compel the private sector to do the right thing domestically and abroad unless we demand it. We must demand it before we give one penny, or walk one precinct, for any elected official in America.
Mass-based organizations must push the political envelope so that when the president proposes a progressive agenda, we don't end up with least of it. Instead, we push it even further.
I think that President Obama knows this, even if being in Washington has made him forget. It is incumbent upon us to remind him.
NOTE: Today's post is cross-posted at DailyKos.