The Real State of Our Union

As much as presidential leadership is critical, we must remember that the great changes in American history -- the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, the New Deal -- were not the product of electoral shifts alone.
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The state of our union is fractured and perilous.

We continue to face an economic crisis of truly historic proportions. There are more than six jobseekers for every unfilled job -- a gap that is growing. The Congressional Budget Office projected yesterday that unemployment will remain above nine percent for at least the next two years. And joblessness is worst for communities of color, youth and women who head households. Almost one third of all Americans scrape out an existence at double the pathetically low federal poverty rate or lower.

The anger and hurt being felt in communities across America has proven to be fertile ground for exploitation by exactly those forces that stand for preserving the privilege of the most powerful elements of our society: Wall Street, the banks and corporations.

Money and special interests continue to dominate Washington, manufacturing a conventional wisdom that blocks real change. The debate barely, if ever, includes policy shifts that could regenerate the American economy and address the deep seated inequalities that resulted in this economic crisis.

The post-racial America envisioned by some after Obama's election has proven to be an illusion. Organizers openly create an all-white basketball league, public officials brazenly liken the poor to animals, conservative media personalities compare urban America to Haiti after the earthquake and our public leaders develop jobs programs that ignore unemployment rates for African Americans and Latinos that in some cities run double and triple the national rate.

Somehow, the ideology that landed America in its worst crisis since the great depression is resurgent. The trickle down theory gave us a decade with no job creation whatsoever. It enriched the most privileged members of our society with obscene salaries and bonuses -- redistributing wealth away from the lower and middle classes who lose ground every day. Yet, most of the proposed solutions seem all too familiar: bail out Wall Street, find more tax incentives for private businesses, cow tow to insurance companies that put profit over health, leave millions of Americans facing foreclosure to the mercy of the big banks.

Health care has gone off the front burner even though 14,000 thousand families go bankrupt every day and 45,000 people die every year because our system puts the profit of health insurers and other special interests above the needs of American families.

The answer to this crisis is not to hesitate in fear at the anger Americans expressed in a single election in a single state. The election of Barack Obama taught us that hope beats fear. But it doesn't win unless we organize and make our voices heard. What is required is bold leadership and relentless work.

Bold leadership means that the president must draw some lines that the country can understand. He must stand unambiguously with people over special interests. Last night's State of the Union was a start. But one speech is not enough. The president must remain constantly committed to helping people understand how we got into this crisis. He can, and must, continually explain the necessary role of government and the limits of markets. The fireside chats of our time are necessary to move and shift public understanding and give the public clear choices about the direction of the country.

Courageous leadership also means seeking bipartisanship with those who side with real solutions for real people. For example, the president ought to work closely and praise Republicans like Lindsey Graham for working on a practical and humane solution to our broken immigration system. But bipartisanship is not an end in and of itself. There are real disagreements with real impacts and to gloss over them in an endless procession of compromises only ensures the special interests will devour the change Americans want. Avoiding this trap requires ruthlessly and consistently calling out those from either party who stand with the special interests and against the people. Practically, this means confronting aggressively GOP obstructionism on the economy, health care, energy and financial regulation. We should call votes and let filibusters be seen for what they are. Too often the forces of change surrender at the mere threat of anti-democratic tactics. Finally, we can't be afraid to criticize sometime allies like Sen. Joe Lieberman for their work on behalf of big financial interests and against American families.

As much as presidential leadership is critical, we must remember that the great changes in American history -- the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, the New Deal, civil rights and Great Society -- were not the product of electoral shifts alone or insider influence peddling. What we need is organizing and movement building that recruits new people, shapes their understanding of the world, wins hearts and minds, and creates opportunities for them to take action.

We must demand a jobs initiative that has the scale and composition to make a real dent in the pain so many are feeling. Only a community jobs program that provides resources to state and local governments to create direct hire jobs in the public, non-profit and small businesses sectors can create jobs fast enough and on a meaningful scale to address the crisis. When Wall Street was hurting, the federal government stepped in with hundreds of billions of dollars. Main Street deserves more than symbolic private sector incentives and corporate welfare.

We must finish health care reform right. It's exactly the wrong time to surrender to the special interests that have fought so hard to block affordable coverage for all Americans. Every day we let the health insurance companies jack up rates and deny our families access to the care they deserve is a day too many.

Community organizers across the country are eager to work with President Obama and Congress to achieve a community jobs program, real health care reform, stronger financial regulation and comprehensive immigration reform. Americans who voted in record numbers for change in 2008 demand results and won't stand for anything less than bold action.
Despair is not an option. Too many people are hurting. Our American future hangs in the balance.

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