Sunday, September 9, 2012

Obama should nationalize the Congressional elections

- by New Deal democrat

(Note: regular economic blogging will resume tomorrow)

The Democratic National Convention was a nearly flawless launch of Barack Obama's official re-election campaign. But it glossed over the first order problems of America's ever more squeezed middle/working class, and it's "invisible poor." On Friday Felix Salmon wrote an absolutely first-rate column about America's invisible poor. I've excerpted it below but you really should read the entire piece:
[T]here’s a very strong correlation between numeracy, or intelligence, or financial literacy, on the one hand, and having a solid financial footing, on the other.

.... Financially literate people are more likely to plan for retirement. And if you plan for retirement, [studies show] you have more wealth .... And similarly, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s huge amounts of research showing that if you’re particularly financially illiterate, or you’re not good at numbers, then you’re much more likely to be ripped off by predatory lenders or other scams, be they legal or otherwise.

There are various conclusions to be drawn here, one of which is that if we do a better job of financial education, then Americans as a whole will be better off. That’s true. But at the same time, financial illiteracy, and general innumeracy, and low IQs, are all perfectly common things which are never going to go away. It’s idiotic to try to blame people for having a low IQ: that’s not something people can control. And so it stands to reason that any fair society should look after people who are at such a natural disadvantage in life. [NDD note: my emphasis]

.... [T]he number of Americans lifted out of poverty has been shamefully low for basically all this century. ....

It seems to me that the current election campaign comes down in large part to a simple question: “who do you care about”? Do you care about the ... “job creators” ... [o]r do you care about ... the people who have been left behind by US economic policy and who desperately need help and support? The Republicans clearly are the party of the 1%, and the Democrats are trying to paint themselves as the party of the middle class — of the 59%, you might say. But no one is standing up for the bottom 40%, the invisible poor ....
As Ezra Klein pointed out, also on Friday, that's exactly where Obama's acceptance speech fell short:
Obama’s speech Thursday night took place in a world where the jobs crisis didn’t exist. It’s not that he didn’t talk about jobs. But there was no particular urgency in his diagnosis, much less in his prescription. The mentions of the unusual severity of the situation were glancing and the proposals mostly unresponsive. The speech would have been as appropriate for an economy at 6.5 percent unemployment as 8.1 percent unemployment.

.... Into this ocean of grim news, the president flung a handful of policy prescriptions that wouldn’t do anything much anytime soon. Plans to boost natural gas production, to recruit new math and science teachers, to make college more affordable, and to boost exports might help us create jobs in the coming years, but they won’t ease the pain for the unemployed in the coming months.

But then, those policy prescriptions weren’t meant to solve the jobs crisis.... they’re about upgrading the skills of American workers and fostering new, high-paying industries. The problem — as the official admitted — is that the project of the first term is not over. Our ongoing jobs crisis has not yet ended.

The administration is not without answers. The American Jobs Act is a serious, real policy proposal that would boost the labor market right now. Private forecasters estimate that it would add around 2 million new jobs over the next two years. In stark contrast to the policies outlined last night, which would be as appropriate in 2005 or 1995 as they are today, the American Jobs Act is actually designed for jobs crisis we’re in, and wouldn’t make much sense in more normal times.

And yet, insofar as the president mentioned it, it was only a glancing, opaque reference. ... White House officials ... [have] made a decision, presumably because they think it’s better politics, to refrain from reminding voters how bad things are and to resist using the campaign as an opportunity to continue pushing emergency measures that congressional Republicans implacably oppose. [NDD note: my emphasis]
The choice of Bill Clinton to nominate Obama speaks volumes.  It seems like Obama has abandoned his original goal of surpassing Clinton and becoming a Great President, and is willing to settle for being heir to Clinton's legacy, provided it gets him re-elected.  As part of that racheting down, the large goals of more equal economic opportunity and fairness toward the under- and unemployed invisible working class and poor have been mooted.

Indeed, once upon a time, Obama is reputed to have said that he would rather not be re-elected then fail to enact policies he deemed essential. Now it is said that he will work with Republicans where possible, but work around them when they are obstructive. That political calculation assumes that he must continue to work with an intransigent GOP majority in the House and possibly even in the Senate.

I contend that there is another alternative. If Obama is able to nationalize the Congressional elections as a referendum on the "do-nothing" Tea Party GOP Congress, even if he believes it carries some risk to his own personal success, he may be richly rewarded with Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress -- who will be indebted to him for their victories. He can then work with friendly collaborators to enact the long-term policies he values so highly -- and those policies will be much more palatable than the ones that would have to gain support from the Congressional GOP.

Wishful thinking on my part? Hardly. In 1948, when he ran against the "do-nothing" GOP Congress that ignored all his initiatives, Harry Truman didn't just secure his own, surprising, re-election. The Democrats also picked up 7 seats in the Senate and 75 seats in the House of Representatives, obtaining Democratic majorities in both.

Is this election just about re-electing Barack Obama, or is it more? If it is also about addressing the long-suffering American working class and the Invisible Poor, it's worth the effort and the chance to make a major theme of this election the defeat of the GOP hostage-taking, do-nothing Congress.