The buzz in the meetings, rallies, and forums underway at the Democratic Convention is modifying Bill Clinton's 1992 dictum: "It's the economy, stupid." This year it is the economy for sure but it goes a step further: It is about creating jobs, increasing wages, and rebuilding workers' bargaining power.
That message was delivered loud and clear on Tuesday in Hillary Clinton's unifying speech. She spoke about the hard working families she met during her campaign who were struggling to make it on the minimum wage, coping with a catastrophic illness, or working multiple jobs so they could send their kids to college. It was reinforced by other speakers such as the laid off auto worker about to lose his health insurance and the courageous woman who lost her battle for equal pay because the Supreme Court ruled she didn't file it on time (even though she didn't discover she had been cheated until years after the discrimination had started). AFL-CIO President John Sweeney focused on how the economy is failing ordinary workers in his speech and in his introductory remarks at a morning panel on "All Boats Rising: Transforming the American Economy."
Even the Sunday New York Times' editors got it, noting that working families are in crisis and are looking to the candidates for bold and concrete actions that address their current distress and worries about the future.
Working families have good reason to be distressed and worried. So far this year the US economy lost over 500,000 jobs and over one million part time workers can't find full time work. What really frustrates workers is that they are doing their part to contribute to economic growth but not getting their fair share in return. Since 1980 productivity grew by over 70% and wages of average workers grew less than 5% and wages are now in a free-fall as inflation surges.
The good news is that a bold and progressive plan for creating new jobs, increasing workers' bargaining power, and raising wages emerged out of the All Boats Rising panel, was echoed in the convention speakers calls for unity, and features prominently in the policies Barack Obama has indicated will define his presidency.
Exactly what would President Obama do to transform the economy to ensure that "all boats rise together?" For those at the bottom of the wage distribution President Obama would increase the minimum wage and tie it to future increases in wages of average workers. To help young people (and adults willing to go back to school) get the education and skills needed to gain access to the better paying jobs he will expand grants and tax credits for college and encourage unions and employers to increase their investments in training and workforce development funds that have proven their value in industries as diverse as construction, health care, hotels, and telecommunications.
But the biggest breakthrough for workers is that, for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt, they would have a president who sees unions as the key to providing the bargaining power they need to secure a decent middle class living. Barack Obama will fix the nation's broken labor law so that the more than 50 million workers who say they want to join a union will be able to do so without fear of getting fired or having their efforts frustrated by employer opposition.
The Obama job creation strategy is equally bold. Again for the first time since Roosevelt the country would have a president ready to invest public funds to create an estimated 5 million new jobs by jumpstarting a renewable energy industry, repairing the nation's crumbling infrastructure, and providing affordable, quality health care for all.
These are the elements of a transformational policy agenda. But a transformational agenda requires a transformational leader. What has attracted so many Americans to Barack Obama is that he has demonstrated in his public service to date and throughout this campaign exactly the type of moral and inspirational leadership needed to bring the country together. No one is better prepared to mobilize the collective energy required from business, labor, government, and workers to build an innovative and productive economy and a shared prosperity in which all boats do in fact rise together.
These are the ideas and the leadership potential that will capture the support needed from "ordinary workers" to propel Barack Obama into the White House and make him an effective, indeed, a transformational president.