WASHINGTON -- On election night in Chicago two months ago, President Barack Obama triumphantly pledged to fight for a middle class he'd appealed to relentlessly -- and successfully -- on the 2012 campaign trail.
"I believe we can build on the progress we've made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class," Obama said. "I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you're willing to work hard ... you can make it here in America."
The central challenge of Obama's second term is whether he can keep that founder’s "promise" to working Americans. It won't be easy, and in an era of divided government and amid cries for austerity and budget cuts, it does not seem likely that the president will offer sweeping new proposals to do so. The administration has said that its top two priorities at the outset of its second term are immigration reform and gun control. Despite an ongoing jobs crisis, creating quality jobs seems to have fallen a few slots on the president's to-do list.
As Obama implicitly acknowledged, the American middle class has fallen on hard times, saddled with historic levels of debt, skyrocketing health care costs and flat wages. By most accounts, middle-class Americans are no better off than they were when the president took office in 2009, in the wake of an unprecedented financial crisis and in the midst of the Great Recession.
The arithmetic is stark. Median household income is lower than when Obama took office, according to Census Bureau data -- lower even than when President Bill Clinton left office in 2001. The middle 60 percent of households -- those earning between $20,262 and $101,582 -- captured a smaller share of aggregate income in 2011 than they did in 2009, while the top fifth, which already made more than the other groups combined, captured more. Surveys of public opinion reveal a middle class that is smaller, poorer and less optimistic than ever. And although the unemployment rate fitfully has fallen below 8 percent for the first time since Obama's 2009 inauguration, most new jobs are too low-paying to sustain middle-class families.
There is more to the plight of the American middle class than numbers can express -- and a greater threat to the country than economists can quantify.
Democracy, after all, can't thrive without a broad, strong, educated core of citizens. But today they find themselves buffeted by the remorseless dictates of global capital, the need for evermore education and training and the burdens of higher taxes to pay for social programs they need, such as health care.
Battling these global and cultural trends is difficult. In fact, it is unfair to ask any one person -- even a president, even Barack Obama -- to overcome them all. The president’s first responsibility in 2009 literally was to do his part to save the world’s frozen capital, banking and trade systems -- without which the American middle class would have had no prospects at all.
Most fair-minded observers would say that Obama did his part, and acquitted himself well under crushing circumstances. A workable and affordable health care system, the central legislative success of his first term, can (if he sets it up properly) be of great benefit to middle-class workers.
But now he must make good on his own promise -- not always central to his discourse or decision making -- to find more good-paying middle class jobs.
On the stump this year, the president made manufacturing a centerpiece of his vision, arguing that a combination of tax reform, investment and education could help repatriate quality jobs to U.S. soil and stabilize the middle class. Perhaps sensing the political popularity of such an idea in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Michigan, the Obama campaign set the lofty but achievable goal of creating a million new manufacturing jobs during the president's second term.
In a recent interview on "Meet the Press," the president renewed his commitment to investing in infrastructure, which he called "broken," as another way to create good-paying jobs.
With the conversation in Washington focused not just on austerity but how much austerity to apply to a sputtering economy, it's hard to imagine what kind of rebooted jobs plan the president could propose for his next term while staying within the bounds of political reality.
"In the short term, we are in a pretty difficult spot," said John Schmitt, an economist with the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research who studies economic inequality and unemployment. "Even if there was a serious commitment on the part of the administration towards a jobs program of some sort, it would run into a lot of trouble in the Congress."
Without a clear and politically viable policy objective for jobs -- unlike, say, banning high-capacity magazines to address mass shootings -- the administration is likely to continue the piecemeal approach to economic recovery that it took for most of the president's first term, observers say.
Obama's landmark 2009 stimulus bill pumped billions of dollars into the ailing economy, stemming the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs each month. The bill addressed the short-term fallout in the private sector by cutting taxes and pouring money into infrastructure projects and expanded unemployment insurance benefits.
But since then, additional spending has been all but off the table. Obama has repeatedly proposed more infrastructure spending, but the White House has routinely given up such demands in negotiations with congressional Republicans.
The lack of stimulus since the initial package -- aside from the repeated extensions of long-term unemployment insurance -- has exasperated left-leaning and centrist economists.
"The answer is very clear: We need substantial additional stimulus to support the economy," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a left-of-center think tank. "We are choosing, as a country and as a town [Washington], not to do it, with millions of jobless workers."
To address the decline in manufacturing jobs, the Obama administration has undertaken a number of modest initiatives, such as launching a manufacturing institute in Youngstown, Ohio, with $30 million in federal funding, a joint effort between industry and schools to train workers for tomorrow's manufacturing jobs. The Youngstown facility focuses on training workers for 3-D printing technology, the kind of modern manufacturing industry where observers see a lot of potential.
The facility is an acknowledgment that tomorrow's manufacturing jobs will be different from the ones of the past. Gone are the days when a new high school graduate could show up at the factory door, get trained on the shop floor and earn a good wage and a pension. Jobs like those in 3-D printing require more advanced training and a certain degree of computer literacy. The same goes for other areas where experts, as well as the White House, see promise, like industrial robotics or nanomanufacturing. Obama's own tech advisers have warned that the country's "historic leadership" in manufacturing technology is "at risk" if it can't cultivate the right talent for these fields.
In his 2013 budget proposal, Obama called for devoting $1 billion to create a national network of institutes like the one in Youngstown -- a recommendation that hasn't exactly become a priority for Congress. Neither have the loftier goals of his earlier manufacturing package, such as extending tax breaks to companies that return jobs to U.S. shores. They appear unlikely to move forward in a second term, even if the president chooses to champion them.
"The administration has done some things but could do a lot more to help manufacturing," said Scott Paul, director of the non-profit Alliance for American Manufacturing. What the White House has done so far is "not well-publicized or well-known. They will ultimately be helpful, but so much of the debate has become politicized, it's hard to make progress on some of the meaningful issues."
And in the end, the manufacturing plan still faces some cold mathematics. The U.S. lost more than 5 million manufacturing jobs in the first decade of this century, falling from 17 million to 12 million. Fewer than 9 percent of American workers have manufacturing jobs, compared with more than 20 percent in 1979. Creating a million new such jobs puts only a dent in that sector's -- and the middle class's -- long-term woes.
"It doesn't come close to restoring manufacturing employment to what it had been," Paul noted, adding that he still found the goal admirable.
Even setting aside the immediate joblessness crisis, Obama still faces the long-term problems of deteriorating wages and growing income inequality for the poor and middle class. Since 1979, the top 1 percent of American households captured more than 38 percent of income growth, while the bottom 90 percent received just shy of 37 percent, according to EPI.
The Great Recession technically ended halfway through 2009, but the economic recovery of the past few years is replacing office workers, real estate brokers and insurance claims adjusters with retail salespeople, restaurant workers and warehouse hands.
Mid-wage jobs -- ones with median hourly wages ranging from $13.84 to $21.13 -- accounted for 60 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. During the recovery since then, mid-wage jobs have represented just 22 percent of growth. Jobs earning less than $13.84 per hour made up 58 percent of recovery growth, according to the NELP.
The president pledged during his 2008 campaign that by 2011 he would have the minimum wage raised to $9.50 and pegged to inflation, a move that worker advocates have clamored for for years, claiming it would help raise the wage floor for the working poor and the middle class. But the federal minimum wage remains $7.25 per hour, well below a living wage in most areas.
Many of those same worker advocates tie the stagnation of real wages to the decline of collective bargaining in the workplace. The rate of unionization in the U.S. has fallen to a historic low, with just 7 percent of private-sector workers now belonging to a union. Labor leaders believe that labor law needs to be amended to make it easier for workers to join unions. Their best shot came and went under the president's watch, when Democrats failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act when they controlled both chambers of Congress.
"I do feel disappointment," said Schmitt, the Center for Economic and Policy Research economist. "That said, we're also in a [political] context where it's extremely difficult to make any progress on the concerns of low- and middle-wage workers."
Despite those shortcomings, and despite the acrimony on Capitol Hill, liberals like Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO federation of unions, are bullish on Obama's second term, given the focus on the middle class and jobs during the election.
"It all starts with the political will, or the national appetite, to again create jobs that are going to be family-supportive and middle-class producing, and I think that's underway right now," Trumka said. "People are talking about it. That's the difference between this election and the ones in the past. We actually had a debate about what's hollowing out the country and what isn't. And our side won, big time."
Now the president’s challenge is to turn that political victory into an economic one for the people who supported him.
This article is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read other posts in the series, click here.
This story appears in Issue 33 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Jan. 25.
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May 1, 2011: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 8, 2009: President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009. The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 3, 2009: President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, Dec. 3, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 4, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a baby while greeting guests during an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 26, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oval Office Chase
July 9, 2012: President Barack Obama runs around his desk in the Oval Office with Sarah Froman, daughter of Nancy Goodman and Mike Froman, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, July 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 13, 2012: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave goodbye to President Shimon Peres of Israel on the North Portico of the White House following the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony and dinner in his honor, June 13, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
April 23, 2012: President Barack Obama tours the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, and Sara Bloomfield, museum director, April 23, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2012: President Barack Obama talks with Betty White in the Oval Office, June 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Venus In Transit
April 24, 2012: President Barack Obama stops to view the moon and Venus before boarding Marine One in Boulder, Colo., April 24, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
'Sweet Home Chicago'
Feb. 21, 2012: President Obama joins in singing "Sweet Home Chicago" during the "In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues" concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 20, 2011: "The Obama family was scheduled to tour the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio before dinner one night. But when heavy fog rolled in, they canceled the visit. After dinner, the fog had dissipated somewhat so they decided to make the drive up the mountain. It was quite clear when they arrived and then the fog started to roll back in. I managed to capture this silhouette as they viewed the statute one last time just before departure." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2011: "The top photograph shows the President having a water gun fight with his daughter Sasha on her birthday weekend at Camp David. Unbeknownst to me, David Lienemann captured a similar photo of the Vice President on the very same day." (Official White House Photos by Pete Souza and David Lienemann)
Dec. 11, 2011: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, right, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 14, 2011: President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 11, 2011: "This photograph by Chuck Kennedy has to catch your eye. It shows Guinness Book of World Records holder John Cassidy performing a balloon act for First Lady Michelle Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room following a Let's Move event." (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
June 21, 2011: First Lady Michelle Obama meets with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa at Mandela's home in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
May 29, 2011: President Barack Obama greets Hugh Hills, 85, in front of his home in Joplin, Mo., May 29, 2011. Hills hid in a closet during the tornado, which destroyed the second floor and half the first floor of his house. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 9, 2011: President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 10, 2011: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk towards the White House after observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Arizona shooting, on the South Lawn, Jan. 10, 2011. White House staff joined the President and First Lady for the moment of silence.(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 7, 2011: President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia, and members of the Australian and American delegations look up at the presidential seal in the Oval Office ceiling following their bilateral meeting, March 7, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 31, 2010: "The skies opened up on Memorial Day outside of Chicago. When the lightning began, the Secret Service told the President that it was too dangerous to proceed. He took the stage by himself and informed the audience that his speech was canceled and that for everyone's safety, they should return to their busses. Later, he boarded a few of the busses to thank them for attending and apologized for not being able to speak." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 20, 2010: President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 28, 2010: President Barack Obama and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf, left, inspect a tar ball as they look at the effect the BP oil spill is having on Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., May 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 21, 2010: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff, react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 31, 2010: President Barack Obama practices his pitching form with personal aide Reggie Love and Jake Levine in the Rose Garden of the White House, March 31, 2010. The President threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day of the baseball season prior to the game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Feb. 1, 2009: "During a Super Bowl watching party in the White House theatre, the President and First Lady join their guests in watching one of the TV commercials in 3D." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
March 15, 2009: "The Obama family was introduced to a prospective family dog at a secret greet on a Sunday. After spending about an hour with him, the family decided he was the one. Here, the dog ran alongside the President in an East Wing hallway. The dog returned to his trainer while the Obama's embarked on their first international trip. I had to keep these photos secret until a few weeks later, when the dog was brought 'home' to the White House and introduced to the world as Bo." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Moment Of Reflection
Jan. 20, 2009: "President-elect Barack Obama was about to walk out to take the oath of office. Backstage at the U.S. Capitol, he took one last look at his appearance in the mirror." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 19, 2009: "Snowball in hand, the President chases Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on the White House colonnade. To escape, Rahm ran through the Rose Garden, which unfortunately for him, was knee-deep in snow." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 10, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal for the first time at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 16, 2010: "President Obama had called on the two former Presidents to help with the situation in Haiti. During their public remarks in the Rose Garden, President Clinton had said about President Bush, 'I've already figured out how I can get him to do some things that he didn't sign on for.' Later, back in the Oval, President Bush is jokingly asking President Clinton what were those things he had in mind." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama watches as members of the National Naval Medical Center's Marine Wounded Warrior basketball team play on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Shoot The J
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama takes a shot during a game with Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Aug. 16, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Aug. 16, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
April 21, 2009: President Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy walk down the South Lawn sidewalk at the White House April 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 10, 2009: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on July 10, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
July 13, 2009: President Barack Obama feigns a punch while talking about health care reform with Nancy-Ann DeParle, Peter Orszag, Phil Schiliro and Larry Summers in the Outer Oval Office, July 13, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 26, 2009: President Barack Obama jokingly reacts to news that staffer Nora Becker will be leaving to pursue a joint MD and PhD in healthcare economics, during the White House staff picnic on the South Lawn, June 26, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 2, 2009: President Barack Obama and former First Lady Nancy Reagan walk side-by-side through Center Hall in the White House, June 2, 2009. To the left of Mrs. Reagan hangs her official White House portrait as First Lady. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts a story to President Barack Obama, Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, outside the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: President Barack Obama tours the Egypt's Great Sphinx of Giza (left) and the Pyramid of Khafre, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Behind The Camera
Feb. 18, 2009: President Barack Obama takes aim with a photographer's camera backstage prior to remarks about providing mortgage payment relief for responsible homeowners at Dobson High School, Mesa, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 21, 2009: President Barack Obama walks into the Oval Office for his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. His Personal Aide Reggie Love stands nearby. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)