"It's an employer's world," said Rebecca Penny, a 55-year-old widow who was laid off over a year ago from her job at a Chevrolet plant in Tennessee. "I lost my benefits the night I was laid off. Now I can't afford medicine. And I can only find minimum wage jobs that don't pay enough to keep up my house payments... My unemployment insurance runs out at the end of the year, and if I can't find something by then, I may lose my house... I don't understand this debate in Washington," she said. "Everyone's talking about deficits, but to me they are doing it backwards... Bring back the middle class first, that will take care of the deficits. Without the middle class, the economy isn't going to go anywhere."
There was more urgency and common sense in her words than anything in either the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire or the president's meeting with CEOs in North Carolina to discuss ways to generate jobs. Republicans scoured the president while offering more of the same policies -- top-end and corporate tax cuts, corporate trade deals, privatization and deregulation -- that got us into the mess we are in. The president spoke eloquently about the need for jobs, and convened his "Jobs and Competitiveness Council" that offered up pablum -- more worker training, less red-tape, easing visas to promote tourism, and the like. Later the president added his support for extending the payroll tax cut when it is slated to expire at the end of the year, which at least is something.
Last month's lousy jobs numbers have politicians in both parties talking about jobs again -- but they are mostly mouthing the words. The big dogs are focused on deficits, specifically the negotiations about how much and what to cut as the price for lifting the debt limit. The decisions coming out of Washington over the next months are more likely to cost jobs than generate them.
Yet, outside the beltway, 25 million Americans remain in need of full time work. Wages aren't keeping up with prices -- particularly the prices of basics like food, gas, health care. Veterans are coming back from risking their lives abroad to the worst jobs market since the Great Depression. Young people are graduating from high school and sitting on their hands. Home values are down a staggering 33% and falling. Millions of foreclosures are yet to come. Companies are sitting on cash, and using tax breaks to accelerate the movement of good jobs abroad. For the first time, polls show most Americans fear their children will not fare as well as they have. The middle class is dying; the American Dream is in danger of becoming a lost fantasy.
Washington seems impervious. So progressive legislators have decided to challenge the limits of the debate. Penny was talking at a press conference sponsored by ProgressiveCongress.org to launch a 12 city summer jobs tour by Progressive Caucus members, dubbed: "The Speakout for Good Jobs Now! Rebuild the American Dream Tour." (Full disclosure: I serve as chair of the board of ProgressiveCongress.org. For dates and times, go to www.SpeakOutTour.com)
The purpose of the tour is to listen -- something legislators aren't exactly famous for -- and to encourage working and unemployed people to speak out and make their voices heard. It will extend through July, with more events still being added. Organizers are hoping to build a tidal wave of demand for action on jobs that will crest into congressional town meetings in August.
In "The People's Budget," the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive"The People's Budget," Caucus, Reps. Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, offered a detailed jobs agenda, one based on Penny's common sense: It starts by creating jobs, and then moves to bring the budget in balance. Since their People's Budget includes top end tax hikes, taxes financial gaming, closes corporate loopholes and takes on defense spending, they have a far more plausible plan for deficit reduction than the fraudulent figures put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan and adopted by the Republican House.
But this tour isn't about legislators laying out their agenda. It is about citizens expressing their frustrations, their fears, their anger and their hopes. The legislators want to provide a platform for the media to pay attention to what is going on in people's lives. And what's clear is that it is only if voters start getting loud and surly about the jobs situation that Washington might get the message.
After the Republican debate last night, CNN invited former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs to provide a "rebuttal" to the incessant attacks on the president.
When asked about the Republican charge that with 9.1% unemployment, the president has no plan, Gibbs responded, correctly, that all Republicans talked about was repeating "the policies that got us into the economic mess that were trying to get out of." Pressed repeatedly about the president's plan, he noted that we've "created 2 million jobs over the last 15 months," and we can't go back to the policies that put us into the mess. Pushed again, he finally argued that the president will "continue to do what he did in December," that is the deal that extended the Bush tax cuts, cut small business taxes, cut the payroll tax and extended unemployment insurance.
Inadvertently, perhaps, Gibbs offered a pretty clear summary of the failed debate in Washington. The country is offered a choice between Republicans championing the very policies that drove the economy off the cliff and a White House vowing not to repeat those policies. A big serious strategy to put people back to work, to rebuild the middle class, to capture a lead in the new green industrial revolution that is sweeping the world is simply off the table. That can only happen with leaders prepared to take on the entrenched interests -- big oil, global corporations, Wall Street -- that stand in the way. And the only way they will gain the courage to do that is, as the SpeakOut Tour suggests, if people demand action on jobs -- and make that demand heard above the current babble.