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A Progressive Economic Narrative

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No surprise that a populist progressive Democrat like me would like President Obama's State of the Union address that talked so much about lifting up the middle class. But there's a background story on getting to the president's message last night that is little known but worth telling.

January of 2011 was a very bleak moment for progressive leaders. The Tea Party Republicans had just taken over the U.S. House as well as way too many state legislative chambers and governors' seats, but that wasn't the only reason we were depressed. President Obama, clearly shaken by the massive losses of 2010, was in retreat both in his messaging and in his political strategy. He had decided to spend almost as much of his rhetorical firepower as the Republicans on the deficit issue, and was eagerly looking to compromise with them -- "meet them more than halfway," as he was fond of saying. Obama had just given in on a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent, and it was clear he was willing to give up a lot more. By the summer of 2011, Obama's political low point, he had given up an enormous amount in spending cuts for progressive priorities on both a budget-cutting compromise in the spring and the debt ceiling deal in the summer, and gotten no concessions at all from the Republicans on tax increases for the wealthy.

Three things happened, though, that turned the political tide and brought us to our present political moment: a handily re-elected and confident president with his highest approval ratings ever and a strong populist progressive message.

First, this president and his political team showed themselves quite good at learning from their mistakes, as they switched strategies and message. Second, the Republicans seriously over-reached, following their far-right base over the political cliff on issues, and nominating the ultimate symbol of Wall Street arrogance as their party's standard bearer. And third, progressives showed that they could create a way to influence the debate and pull the president toward a stronger, clearer message.

The first of these two things are well known and well documented. The third is not, but it is a story progressives should hear and understand as they move forward to work on influencing the debate over the next few years. It all starts in that bleak month of January, 2011. Faced with Tea Party Republicans on a roll and a defensive back-tracking president, progressive leaders from the labor movement, other progressive organizations, and the Netroots movement met together to talk about how we could create a progressive populist center of gravity powerful enough to pull the president in our direction. What we believed is that we had not been effective over the previous couple of years in telling our story of how the economy works and why Americans should choose progressive policies that focused on helping low- and middle-income families. We invited to the discussions smart message folks like Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake, Paul Begala, Drew Weston, and Van Jones to help us craft a narrative that would have a strong appeal to the vast majority of American voters.

This is what we came up with, a progressive economic narrative that we could all rally around. And the progressive movement came together to tell that story. Labor union presidents started telling that story in their speeches, and union organizers began telling that story in their organizing work. Online organizations like Rebuild the Dream and Moveon started using some of this language in their emails. Bloggers started writing about it in their blog posts. Broad progressive coalitions on the budget fights started getting briefed on how to use it in their budget messaging. Networks of state and local progressive organizations like USAction and the Center for Community Change started using it in their local organizing work. Progressive think tanks like Campaign for America's Future and Center for American Progress told the story in some of their messaging work. Progressive academics like Jacob Hacker used some of the language in his landmark economic plan Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy for All.

It took a while, and of course (as it should be) every group and leader using the narrative had their own angle on the story. We weren't all marching lockstep, and that was the way it should be. But these same basic ideas were a part of our collective story telling: that a rising, prosperous middle class as the engine of our economy; how we need to expand that middle class by bringing the poor and the young into it, not shrink it by having a low-wage economy; that we needed not only jobs but good jobs with rising wages; that all Americans deserved the opportunity to reach our full potential; that government needs to be on the side of all Americans, not only the wealthy and powerful; that we needed to promote American manufacturing, and invest in our infrastructure and our schools.

And now they are at the heart of the story President Obama has been telling the American people in his SOTU, in his second inaugural address, on the campaign trail last year. From last night: "It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class." And "A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts." And "no one who works full time should have to live in poverty..." And "Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger America. It is this kind of prosperity -- broad, shared, and built on a thriving middle class -- that has always been the source of our progress at home." You are speaking our language, Mr. President.

It wasn't because the president's speech writers saw the website and thought it sounded good. It was because they are reading the same polling we are, because they are seeing the same focus groups. It is because this is where the American people have come around to after flirting with the Tea Party "no government is ever good" rhetoric. America's middle class knows it is getting crushed, and it knows that wealthy and powerful special interests have been making out like bandits on the backs of the rest of us. People are rallying around the story we are telling because it is common sense. The progressive center of gravity we built with this narrative pulled the president and the public in our direction because the story is true, and because it has powerful resonance in people's lives.

What Democrats and progressives need to do is what President Obama has been doing ever since he made his turn to this message in his speech in the fall of 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas: keep telling the story over and over again. And here's what else we, and the president, need to do: follow up by pushing big, politically bold ideas for rebuilding that middle class and holding the big special interests accountable. Government policies can and should promote higher wages through the minimum wage increase, stronger unions, and government contractors being forced to pay their workers better; government investments in manufacturing, green energy, infrastructure, and education need to be made; corporate crooks including those on Wall Street need to be prosecuted for their crimes, and companies that are so big that they are able to manipulate markets need to be broken up.

This is what progressives should be fighting for, and this is the story we should be telling. It is our moment, and the American people are listening.

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