OK, I admit that mid-May 2010 wasn't yet supposed to be the 'best of times' -- the enormity of the economic problems confronting the country on Inauguration Day 2009 completely belied this. Nevertheless, I venture to say that most voters that day, progressive and conservative alike, would never have believed that less than six months before election 2010 we would still not have in sight clear pathways toward near-full real employment, toward some significant amelioration of the unprecedented income inequality that hangs like a cloud over the country, and toward meaningful resuscitation of the middle class.
And on that January day, it was certainly inconceivable to me that one or both of the Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House -- majorities gained through nearly unprecedented voter outreach in the elections of 2006 and 2008 -- could, less than six months before the next election, be at risk. Yet the Democratic majority in the House, despite a surge of exceptional leadership, is clearly at risk, and so too is at least the cohesive voice if not the outright Democratic majority in the Senate.
The reasons are sadly pretty simple, and they have very little to do with the two legislative bodies themselves.
The Great Recession of 2007, at least for the economists, officially began in December 2007. For most Americans, and certainly for the entire middle class, however, the now massive trunk of this Recession took root so many years earlier that by early 2007 it was apparent to all but those Republicans fighting to stay in the White House or get control of Congress that an economic storm of nearly unprecedented ferocity was in the offing. Income inequality in America was then and is now the greatest since 1928, average household income hasn't changed a bit for 10 years, and for the bottom 60 percent of wage earners average household income hasn't changed for more than 20 years. None of this was lost on the bulk of the electorate, especially those in the middle class.
Sensing the electorate's mood, and embracing the political opportunity it offered, the Democrats turned the election of 2008 into one of the most incisive and 'promise-filled' in memory. Witness the exhaustive quality of the Democratic nominating process and especially the later debates between Senators Clinton and Obama. Over and over again, without wavering, Democrats everywhere attacked the four plagues of (1) 'trickle down economics,' (2) excessive management compensation, (3) elimination of worker protections, and (4) unfair globalization that has left the vast majority of American workers -- 80 to 90 percent of them -- standing still earnings-wise. And with a focus not seen for 40 years, we had a presidential campaign on our hands that left little doubt what actions would occur in 2009 and 2010 if either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton became President and especially if a Democratic Majority in the Senate arose to accompany the hard-fought Democratic majority gained in the House in 2006.
The majority of voters believed that the first priority -- and the first task -- of a new Democratic administration would be jobs, jobs, jobs. Maybe the reality would not be the immediate creation of one job for every real unemployed worker, but at least 'all of government' would wear this priority on its sleeve.
The majority of voters expected that from the simplest act to the most complex a new Democratic administration would be seeking to stem the withering of the middle class on the one hand and to stabilize it on the other against the twin onslaughts of unfair globalization and unaccounted-for technological change.
Tragically, the biggest problem facing America today is not a bad job or a low paying job, it's no job at all. Real unemployment remains mired at around 18 to 20 percent, a dramatic increase from the already daunting 10.6 percent at the start of the Great Recession. The seminal challenge confronting the nation today, which must take precedence over everything but our national security, is to create the 22 million jobs we are now 'short' in order to be at or near full employment, plus the 140,000 jobs that need to be created each month just to keep up with population growth.
The clock is ticking down until election 2010, and a lot of canaries in the political coal mine have already breathed their last signaling what could happen to Democratic incumbents in the House and Senate if actions aren't taken soon.
Three months from now, assuredly it will be too late to react -- but it is not yet too late yet.
For President Obama, this means quickly taking the five specific actions that he so easily spoke about nearly every day in 2008 and embracing -- or, perhaps better said, re-embracing -- that one overriding principle which also became commonplace.
As for those urgently needed actions, the President needs to:
- Move completely away from the laissez faire approach toward all regulation that characterized the George W. Bush administration.
- Reform trade, especially with China. "Change," candidate Obama said in July 2008, is "knowing that for trade to work for America, it has to work for all Americans; that we have to stand up to countries that are manipulating their currency or flooding our markets with subsidized goods; that it's wrong to have a "one-size fits all" trade policy that treats countries as different as China and Mexico as if they were the same; and that our job ends not when a trade deal is signed, but when it's enforced".
- Require, in a common sense way, the federal government to buy things from American manufacturers, whether it's tanks or toilet paper.
- Immediately initiate a major long-term public investment program to upgrade and rebuild our nation's major infrastructure, including establishing a new National Infrastructure Bank.
- Enact new tax policies, for as candidate Obama also said, "Change is ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas and giving them to companies that create good paying jobs here in America".
And as to that overriding principle, it has two parts: first is acknowledging that America's economic salvation lies in millions more American workers paying union dues; and second is agreeing that unions and their members must at least co-lead the efforts to beat back the current culture of greed that has been fueled by excessive executive compensation, unfair tax practices, and unfair trade practices. During the campaign, then-candidate Obama pledged his own troth to these views when he said that, "Change is a President who welcomes [American workers] into the White House and who will finally make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land."
Well, now is the time for us to see both firsthand.
We recently saw how President Obama won on health care. It might not have been pretty, and he fought for every last vote, but in the process, America won.
Now, he must fight just as hard and publicly for the well-being of America's workers.
Yes, it's 'less than six months before the next election', but if President Obama will quickly take these actions with the same conviction and tenacity with which he gave us health care reform, then voters will have their faith reaffirmed that he and his administration care deeply about and will diligently work to alleviate the plight of America's workers and the middle class.
With that, voters' concerns, and in some cases their outright disappointment, about what the new administration should have tackled first will recede, and the majority which swept President Obama into office will likely sweep away the cloud that is hanging over far too many able Democratic incumbents and preserve the Democratic majorities in Congress.
Leo Hindery, Jr. is Chairman of the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Currently an investor in media companies, he is the former CEO of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), Liberty Media and their successor AT&T Broadband. He also serves on the Board of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.