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.
A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the host of the new podcast “This...Is Interesting,” Miller writes a weekly column for The Post.
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.”