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Obama’s convention speech and the age of diminished expectations

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Let me say right up top that I share the values President Obama articulated Thursday night — an America where everyone has a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and there are no separate rules for Wall Street or the privileged. After a decade of cutting taxes for high earners even as we fought two wars and racked up trillions in debt, the idea that Republicans now make trillions in deeper tax cuts for the top the centerpiece of their agenda is a shocking instance of plunder from above. I also believe the president has had significant achievements after inheriting so deep a mess; I’ll always admire his determination to stay “big” on health reform despite paying a stiff political price. I agree with Vice President Joe Biden that Obama’s auto rescue and bin Laden decisions were impressive and consequential.

And, yet, Obama’s speech left me depressed. In 1992, Paul Krugman — then less well-known but no less incisive — wrote an excellent yet disheartening book called “The Age of Diminished Expectations.” I don’t have it at hand, but I recall that in each chapter he talked about different economic problems the nation faced, laid out ways we could address them if we were serious, and then observed matter-of-factly (and rightly, no doubt) that we wouldn’t address them because we weren’t really serious. His downbeat refrain has always lingered.

That sentiment came back to me in the section of Obama’s speech that laid out his policy goals for the next four years. Especially after Obama’s baiting reminder that, as he put it, “You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth.”

The goals he then asked us “to rally around” were far too modest, and filled with partial truths.

Take manufacturing. Obama asked us to embrace the goal of adding a million new manufacturing jobs in the next four years. Now, I’m all for bringing more manufacturing jobs home. But the president didn’t mention that the kind of manufacturing jobs returning to our shores today don’t pay $40 or $50 an hour like the classic auto jobs did in their heydey; instead, they pay $14 to $18 an hour, often with scant benefits. Even if we get these jobs back, they almost certainly won’t be the kind of jobs on which families can build secure lives.

A president who told us what we needed to hear, and not just what we wanted to hear, would have added something like this: “We’ll need to come together to find new ways to make sure these jobs — which pay less than old-style manufacturing jobs, because of global competition — are still consistent with a secure, middle-class life. That’s why I’ll be bringing together leaders in business, labor, the non-profit sector and government to forge a new American social contract that makes sure every American has access to secure health care and ways to save meaningfully for retirement. The old ways of handling these building blocks of a decent life need to be rethought in a global age if American capitalism is to deliver the shared prosperity we seek.”

Or take education. Obama talked about recruiting 100,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade. That’s 10,000 a year. There are roughly 3 million teachers in the U.S. As Bill Clinton might say, if you do the arithmetic, Obama can only be playing at the margins.

A president who told us what we needed to hear would say something more like this: “We need to hire 2 million teachers over the next two decades as the boomers retire. Whom we choose to fill these jobs will determine our nation’s future. My plan is to make teaching the career of choice for our most talented young people — and that means raising salaries to lure top graduates to the classroom, as the best school systems in the world do. Next month I’ll unveil my plan to help states raise starting teacher salaries and to make it possible for the best teachers to earn $150,000 a year.”

It was the same with college costs. Obama laid out a goal of cutting in half the expected growth in tuition costs over the next decade. Translated, that means tuition and student debts will grow ever higher. In an era when tuition is already out of control and online innovations are poised to radically disrupt the cost structure of higher education, how can that be the right ambition to “rally around”?

There’s more in this vein, but you get the point. Obama’s affirmative vision was largely rhetorical. I’m sure the focus groups cheered. But when it came to actual policy, the choice Obama repeatedly framed calls on voters to avoid some very bad things that would happen if Republicans win and keep their promises. He’s right: slashing aid for college and the poor; repealing health insurance for 30 million American slated to receive it; squandering scarce cash on tax cuts for the top instead of investing in infrastructure and R&D — these would be awful steps backward.

The choice Obama laid out, in other words, is a critical choice. But another choice — a bolder, progressive agenda for real American renewal — is not on the ballot this year.

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