02/13/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

The Progressive Economic Narrative in Obama's State of the Union

Two years ago, frustrated by a conservative resurgence in the 2010 election, a group of progressive activists, economists, communicators, and pollsters came together to write a compelling story about our view of the economy (as Mike Lux relates). Our goal was to write a story that people could easily understand, based on our beliefs about how to create an economy that delivered broadly shared prosperity -- a story that could stand up against the right's familiar recipe of free markets, limited government, and rugged individualism. The core of the story we developed in our progressive economic narrative (PEN) was: "The middle class is the engine of our economy. We build a large, prosperous middle class by decisions we make together."

So it was a milestone in our work to hear President Obama tell our story and use our language in his State of the Union address. The key line, delivered at the top of the speech and quoted in almost every news story, was "It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class."

Taking another lesson from PEN, the president prefaced that quote with an explanation of what the economic problem is, focusing on how working families and the middle class have been crushed. In PEN we say, "American families are working harder and getting paid less, falling behind our parents' generation. Too many Americans can't find good jobs and too many jobs don't pay enough to support a family. Big corporations have cut our wages and benefits and shipped our jobs overseas." Here's the president's version:

But -- we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can't find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of Americas economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.

When it came to describing how we build this middle-class engine, the president again used the same ideas frame laid out in PEN: "We build a large and prosperous middle class through the decisions we make together; investing in our people, expanding opportunity and security, paving the way for business to innovate, and to do business in ways that create prosperity and economic security for Americans." The president's agenda was based on these same concepts:

  • Invest in people through education (starting at Pre-K), skills we need for today's jobs, affordable health care, and a secure retirement.
  • Pave the way for businesses through research, infrastructure, and green energy.
  • Do business in ways that create prosperity, with a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women.

The president's story contrasted sharply with Marco Rubio's. Rubio also paid homage to the middle class, but he told the conservative tale:

This opportunity -- to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life -- it isn't bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs. Presidents in both parties -- from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan -- have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

So the fight is joined. For too long, progressives have not taken on the conservative story with our own narrative. As a result, even when people agree with us on specific issues, they still hold fast to the right's definition of how to move the economy forward. We have, with the simple tale told by the president and in the progressive economic narrative, a very different story, an economy driven by working families and the middle class, which we create by decisions we make together, with our government as the catalyst.

Our next task is to tell this same story over and over again in all of our communications. Repetition is key. People need to hear the story whenever we communicate on an economic issue. We give examples of how do to that on job quality, job creation, the federal fiscal mess, and health care at

President Obama left out one part of the progressive economic narrative in his speech. As we say in PEN, "Our political system has been captured by the rich and powerful and corrupted by big money in politics. The issue is not the size of the government, it's who the government works for -- powerful corporations and the richest few, or all of us. We have to take our democracy back to ensure that our economy will work for all of us. "

That's a story that politicians are reluctant to tell. As always, we need to lead and the leaders will follow. It is up to us to build an America and economy that works for all us. Clearly describing our vision of how to do that is a crucial element of building power that progressives overlooked for too long. We're much closer when the president tells that story to the nation. It's up to us to keep telling it every day.

Cross-posted from Next New Deal.