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John O'Kane Headshot

Can Obama Escape the Right-Wing Frame?

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The official rant these days is that the economy is in recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Of course the economy owned by those in the upper income brackets, the 1 percent or more broadly the 5 percent or even the 20 percent, has recovered. The stock market has reached record levels, profits for many major corporations are the highest in history, CEO and upper management salaries have spiked, and the housing market has nearly recovered its pre-recession value according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The not-so-official rant, however, is that we're still mired in recession. The unemployment rate, a defective measure anyway that excludes those who stop looking for work and fails to reflect the epidemic of under-employment, remains relatively high. Wages are stagnant, small businesses are still being wiped out, foreclosures continue in the communities most impacted by the sub-prime loan policies the banks profited from, and housing values remain repressed for many in the lower and middle classes, with many homes still under water. These values, again according to the St. Louis Fed, will likely never return for this sector. This is especially worrisome since these values were the source of retirement and start-up businesses for many citizens.

Since the new jobs being created are mostly low-wage and temporary ones, what will "recovery" mean to the struggling victims when we return to pre-recession employment levels? Taken together these deficits could retard the catch-up process for generations. The increasing spread between these economies, already an issue before the recession, is making inequality so extreme that an overhaul of the system might be necessary before we experience anything like the conditions of the expanding middle class during the fifties and sixties.

What's striking is that six years into this crisis we still don't have a credible policy to deal with these issues. President Obama's responses to emerging problems and issues are mostly ad hoc reactions. His approach lacks a consistency of purpose and action. Congress is polarized, and mostly responsive to the funders that promise to get it elected in the next cycle of voting, and not to the people who clearly, as polls show, want real change. The people's will is apparently being thwarted by a broken system.

Have the victims who occupy this other economy been abandoned, and their fates left blowing in the wind by an oligarchy so entrenched in power that it only wants to reproduce itself? Are they too alienated to revolt, or at least hit the streets in sufficient numbers to make some noise and kickstart a movement? It seems years of abandonment have left them with little sense of empowerment or hope for real change. And now they've learned to ignore the process that ignores them. In this shared ignorance, the institutions that once served the lower and middle classes, and helped secure and protect their piece of the American Dream, have been reshaped or eliminated by the oligarchy.

Consider education, traditionally the vehicle for the excluded to improve their state in life. It was part of a broad policy of inclusion during the era of middle class-expansion, roughly between 1945 and 1973. It was affordable. Higher education in California, for example, was tuition-free until the '70s, providing many citizens access to upward mobility. The creeping politics of perpetual budget-cutting, to a great extent a response to new tax reductions for the upper tier of citizens, helped reverse this trend. Part of a national pattern, they've contributed to the erosion of the safety net as well. America has one of the weakest welfare systems in the advanced industrial world. This forerunner of "austerity" politics severely weakened the New Deal/Great Society legacy premised on greater inclusion. TANF, the 1996 "revision" of the welfare law that removed the right to benefits, played a significant role in this regard. The decline of unions has been responsible for the flattening of wages over the past forty years, leaving us with a low-wage economy where far too many citizens must work multiple jobs to survive, as Barbara Ehrenreich's masterful book, Nickel and Dimed, documents.

And housing, which traditionally helped many advance into and through stages of the middle class, lacks a policy design like what helped expand home ownership during healthier economic times. It has been dwarfed by bubble economics and policies that encourage speculation in land and property, all of which mostly benefit those at the top.

These deficits leave many lacking in options to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even if there were good ones in the real economy to choose from.

The problem is that a bipartisan bloc of conservatives owns the narrative for change, a seductive commonsense that has little to do with practical policy solutions. This is very curious since, as Ian Masters noted recently on Pacifica's "Background Briefing," their policies were responsible for the 2008 collapse and our continuing economic woes. To compound the irony many on the fringe work to block Obama's team from doing anything whatsoever, even sacrificing workers to budget-balancing schemes. Many on the fringe are now embracing moments in the past when we were supposedly freer, before the New Deal and certainly before any deals that included ordinary Americans. It seems that turning back can feel and appear liberating in the face of crises.

But how has it come to pass that no change, the undoing of change and a return to the past can be sold as change? Liberals want to go back as well, but to a different moment with greater opportunity and more equality. Perhaps Obama's "hope and change" was so empty and disappointing to many conservatives, and even some liberals, that they now distrust promises of moving ahead, and welcome a turn back to better times when change didn't seem necessary. And certainly before the liberal-left's heyday of the '60s when issues like civil rights and feminism, and the anti-poverty and anti-war movements, gave society the pedigree of future shock because of so much fast-paced change. The right does get hyper-motivated in the '70s to erase these advances from memory.

And they've been very successful since then at fighting to undo change under the guise of providing it. In the '70s they got very well organized and built the base to elect Ronald Reagan, achieving the success that would help secure future gains. They were able to change the way we view society in relation to government.

The liberal establishment has always been a weak agent for change, mostly talking progress and legislating individual advantages without paying serious attention to structures and institutions. But the crisis of liberalism is married to this conservative success. This crisis is reflected already in the 1968 election when the Democrats chose a candidate, Hubert Humphrey, whom many felt was not all that different from Richard Nixon. When Nixon won, the radical left retreated to the fringe, and groups like SDS dropped out of politics. The Democrats floundered for a few years, vesting its fortunes in the anti-war McGovern wing of the party for the 1972 elections. They lost again, by one of the largest margins in history, and their players moved toward the center.

Fearing their party might fade from the scene, they became more and more like the Republicans over the course of the decade in order to restore their competitive position. This conservative bloc developed a greater presence, and they pulled Democrats to the right.

This helps explain why there are now fewer liberal Democrats in Congress, and even fewer progressives, to represent marginalized groups. And it also helps explain why the Democrats' proposals and policies are often lite versions of what the Republicans offer. They're for balanced budgets but not as urgently, and with a different mix of trade-offs between spending cuts and revenue increases; less austerity; more taxes on the rich but no progressive restructuring of the tax code; more regulation of corporations without any appreciable resistance to deregulation; free markets with a dash of planning, etc. With regard to defense both are players, as the realignment over Syria showed.

As polls and focus groups reveal, people can easily identify and repeat the Republican pitch but are fuzzy about what the Democrats stand for. Perhaps we rush to embrace the story that sounds and feels better in the absence of clearly explained alternatives that make sense. Are we lured by images when options appear similar and we're unable to clearly discern the differences?

The 2012 election results suggest that while the Democrats picked up a few good seats in Congress, and Elizabeth Warren's victory is especially notable, not much has changed in terms of the balance of power. Obama's speeches in the aftermath were mostly a mild redux of his "hope and change" singsong. He renewed his support for the jobs bill the Republicans blocked some months before the election, and to raise taxes on the super rich, claiming the voters gave the Democrats a mandate to reverse course and improve the lives of the middle class. But business as usual quickly replaced the rhetoric. He accepted the Republican frames of the issues, especially the austerity agenda, and caved on reversing the Bush tax cuts. He even offered in advance to cut Social Security and Medicare, punting on second down again!

His economic talk has been recently dwarfed by the scandals over monitoring journalists and mining the meta-data of cyberspace customers, and especially the greater attention to Syria and foreign policy. But also attention to "cultural" issues, like gay marriage, gun control and immigration. Republicans point to this attention as evidence of his "liberalism," though many of them support these issues as well, particularly immigration reform. And Obama's support of the Dream Act was perhaps more about getting the Latino vote. Obama's policies on the economy are far from liberal.

These election results say more about the electorate's rejection of an out-of-touch party that mostly represents the privileged, as well as its blundering misrepresentation of facts, than anything else. For Obama to be even mildly progressive on the economy he must make his rhetoric reality and break free from the conservative frame and avoid the perpetual right-wing austerity trap. He must get on the offensive with a growth incline policy that wipes out the need for austerity in the first place. The next few days may very well determine his legacy!

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, "The Popular Mind and Unpopular Policies."