Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said Wednesday afternoon that he's returning to politics to champion economic mobility and America's struggling middle class, telling a Detroit luncheon crowd that “the opportunity gap is the defining issue of our time.”
In his first major policy speech since announcing he would test the waters for a run for the Republican presidential nomination, the former Florida governor diagnosed the U.S. economy as not delivering for "tens of millions" of Americans, sounding concerns over economic inequality that until recently have largely been the rhetorical provenance of Democrats.
“The recovery has been everywhere but in the family paychecks," Bush told the Detroit Economic Club. "The American Dream has become a mirage for far too many.” People are frustrated, he said, because they see "only a small portion of the country riding the economy’s up escalator.”
Later, he added: “If Americans are working harder than ever, earning less than they once did, our government, our leaders, should step up, fix what went wrong, or step aside.”
That diagnosis would not have been out of place in President Obama's State of the Union address last month. Where Bush broke from Obama and other Democrats was in his broad diagnosis of what's holding workers back, and in his promise to prescribe policy solutions that adhere to conservative economic principles.
Bush did not detail a comprehensive theory of why the economy doesn't work well for many workers today, but he promised to do so in the weeks to come. He offered some glimpses in Detroit, and many of them cast government as a primary anchor on the middle class.
He blamed government policies for restricting business competition, for weighing down the labor market and for forcing small business owners to shut their doors. He said federal welfare programs were discouraging people from going to work.
He offered five broad themes that sounded like guideposts for a more detailed economic agenda to come -- the core themes of what he dubbed a "Right to Rise" society (a moniker that shares a name with his political action committee).
Those included reforming government in several ways, including opening the education system to more competition, more teacher and administrator accountability and higher student achievement standards; support for every child to have a "committed, two-parent family;" and policymaking that prizes economic growth above all else, with an eye on growing the economy at 4 percent annually. (The last time the economy grew 4 percent in even one year was in 2000.)
Bush seemed to urge Republicans to claim the inequality issue as their own, urging them to speak to people "who don’t want to wait for government to deliver prosperity. They want to earn it themselves.”