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Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard

Posted February 25, 2009 | 09:56 PM (EST)

Finally, a President Who Works for Workers


It would be easy in these troubled times to shrink from campaign promises, to cower from the greatness that might have been, to claim that the beast of the Bush recession had devoured the nation's potential to achieve great goals.

President Barack Obama chose instead to arrive at his first address to a joint session of Congress prepared to restore America's hope for lofty causes. In addition, during those 52 minutes of inspiration, President Obama renewed his commitment to work for the benefit of working people, calling for a legislative focus this year on three areas crucial to them: education, energy and health care.

"We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril, and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again," the president said. Yes. Yes we can.

"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," he said. "The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities, in our fields and our factories, in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth." Notice that the president didn't mention in this group those vaunted Wall Street financial brainiacs. He did, however, specify working people, blue collars in fields and factories and white collars in labs and universities.

This next bit is crucial. President Obama said he believes government has a responsibility to act during this economic crisis to help resolve it:

"I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.

For history tells a different story. History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive."

That puts him in conflict with Republicans who want to sit idly by or believe government should commit more of the shameful failures that got the U.S. into this mess - cutting taxes - particularly for businesses. That is exactly what Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal offered as a solution when he rebutted President Obama's speech for the Republicans afterwards.

Then he went on to try to squirm out of his own party's responsibility for the current budget deficit - caused in large part by the massive tax cuts the Republican Congress and Republican President bestowed on the rich. Here's what Jindal said:

"In recent years, these distinctions in philosophy became less clear - because our party got away from its principles. You elected Republicans to champion limited government, fiscal discipline, and personal responsibility. Instead, Republicans went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington. Republicans lost your trust - and rightly so." Really? Republicans, who controlled Congress, "went along with" earmarks? Even now they refuse to accept "personal responsibility!"

Among President Obama's promises in his speech, by contrast, was that he would reverse those Republican tax cuts for the rich. In a pre-emptive strike, he pointed out that only those earning more than a quarter million dollars a year would return to tax rates they had paid before Bush took office. Jindal suggested the Democratic programs would "saddle future generations with debt." But, again, he failed to mention the debt created by the Republican tax cut for the rich.

President Obama doesn't accept Jindal's premise at all, however. He believes that government can be used to prod the economy to grow. He said,

"The only way to fully restore America's economic strength is to make the long-term investments that will lead to new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world. The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of health care; the schools that aren't preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit.  That is our responsibility."

He said the process begins with energy and that the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead this century. Yet, he said, China has moved ahead of the U.S. to make its economy energy efficient. The U.S. invented solar technology, "but we've fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it.  New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea. Well I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders - and I know you don't either.  It is time for America to lead again."

What's significant about this is not just that he is seeking leadership in a crucial area, but that he wants factories and workers in the U.S. to make the parts - not import them. Similarly, he promised to remove the tax credit given multinationals that move their manufacturing facilities overseas and to ensure a re-imagined and competitive auto manufacturing industry in America. This president understands the value of that made in America label.

It's telling who President Obama chose to bring to the assembly and single out first for praise. It was Leonard Abess, a bank president from Miami, who gave his $60 million bonus to his 471 workers. Mr. Abess said he didn't feel right keeping it himself. This stands in stark contrast to those Wall Street financers who walked away with millions in bonuses - never looking back -- after taxpayers had bailed out their failed banks. Obama said that kind of abuse would end in his administration.

Like Abess, Obama clearly appreciates workers. Yes, he does.