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John R. Burbank Headshot

Whatever Happened to Hope and Change?

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Think back to 2008. The words and rhetoric were magical. Transformative, change, change to win, hope. Progressives could paint their dreams and ideals on candidate Obama, and candidate Obama encouraged them to do so. We could believe in a new world. The old one would be gone with the departure of the boy president who stole the White House.

The rhetoric of five years ago has been corrupted by both the reality of inertia and governance, and President Obama's lack of will to challenge and change that reality. No one talks about transformative change. If they do, they are referring to a commercial app, not a social movement for justice. No one talks about change to win. We won, and we lost. The change we got was the continuation of the corporate takeover of government, blessed by the President we worked so hard to elect. Hope is in the distant past. Most Americans are just surviving.

Mr. Obama used the middle class, the hope of and for the middle class, as the lever to get reelected. Remember growing the economy from the middle out? Now that has also become a mere rhetorical flourish, gaining votes and signifying nothing.

Many of us hoped that in his second term President Obama would become a steward for the middle class, not a negotiator with himself. But that hope crashed in December, with the needless caving in to avoid the fiscal cliff.... which was itself an artifice in which the president played his part. He had all the cards, and he gave them all away. If he had held firm, in one stroke on New Year's Day, we would have wiped out the Bush tax favoritism for the wealthy, the favoritism of unearned income over earned income, the generational privilege handed down via an estate tax with lowered rates, high thresholds, and big loopholes. Instead, most of those taxes favoring the wealthy are now permanent law, with no expiration date.

Sure, if Obama had held firm, taxes on the middle class would have gone up. But then he could negotiate from a position of strength, and Congress would have had to follow. Plus we would have had an immediate boost in revenues, to invest in public services and to quell the deficit-chicken-little-sky-is-falling crowd. Instead, we have the play-acting of the sequester, and the very real damage it is venting onto our economy, our citizens, our children. But instead of allowing the pressure to build up on Congress from the business class, and the political elite, the President agreed to make it easier again for them to fly. Next thing there will be personal valet service to get people their passports on time. So the President owns the sequester as much as Congress.

What has he done for growing the middle class? How about the chained CPI for Social Security? That takes money directly from seniors, the majority of whom are riding just above the cusp of poverty. They perceive themselves as middle class, but they are just hanging on. So the president proposed a formula so that if they live long enough and are poor enough, they will get a little bump in benefits, not to make up for what they will lose chained to the chained CPI, but to keep them quiet.

This really shouldn't surprise us, as President Obama said in the first presidential debate that he and Romney had pretty much the same views on Social Security. The president was being honest. We just did not want to believe him. We gave him the benefit of the doubt. We didn't expect we would be reelecting a Negotiator-in-Chief. And not a very good one at that. The president has put forward a cut in Social Security that will enable Republican candidates to foam at the mouth about how Democrats will take away billions of dollars from Social Security, and that compels Democrats, if they have good values or good political sense, or both, to reject out-of-hand the president's CPI proposal. The president may not be running for re-election, but members of his party are.

What happened to transformative power, hope, change to win? We can't even use these words as beacons of progress. They have been corrupted by each and every inaction and counteraction to prevent policy momentum that would give them a material essence, and that would enable these values to clothe our democracy.

So what now? Are there new words and phrases we can use that inspire our future? Probably, and probably they too will be corrupted by the next Democratic and Republican leaders. So perhaps it makes more sense just to focus on the factual nitty-gritty. The chained CPI is a cut in Social Security. We want an increase in benefits. We want a future of middle class prosperity. We want economic security and educational opportunity. We want a vibrant, hopeful, and forward-looking middle class, in which our children have greater security and opportunity than our parents had. Security, opportunity, optimism, belief in the future. It is our job to compel the future to reflect the language which inspires us and our fellow citizens.