Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, is mayor of Chicago and represented Illinois’ 5th District in the U.S. House from 2003 to 2009. He was White House chief of staff from January 2009 to October 2010.
Too much post-election analysis has focused on voter demographics and campaign mechanics, leaving Democrats in danger of drawing the wrong lessons from our electoral success.
Demographics alone are not destiny. There is nothing in this year’s election returns that guarantees Democrats a permanent majority in the years to come. President Obama and the Democratic Party earned the support of key groups — young people, single women, Latinos, African Americans, auto workers in the Rust Belt and millions of other middle-class Americans — because of our ideas.
But we cannot expect Republicans to cede the economic argument so readily, or to fall so far short on campaign mechanics, the next time around.
So, instead of resting on false assurances of underlying demographic advantages, the Democratic Party must follow through on our No. 1 priority, which the president set when he took office and reemphasized throughout this campaign: It is time to come home and rebuild America.
In Chicago, our initiative of “Building a New Chicago” adopts a similar view, with improvements to areas as varied as education and physical infrastructure.
While infrastructure improvements have been neglected on a federal level for decades, Chicago is making one of the nation’s largest coordinated investments, putting 30,000 residents to work over the next three years improving our roads, rails and runways; repairing our aged water system; and increasing access to gigabit-speed broadband. We are paying for these critical improvements through a combination of reforms, efficiencies and direct user fees, as well as creating the nation’s first city-level public-private infrastructure bank. Democrats should champion these kinds of innovative financing tools at a national level.
If we want to build a future in which the middle class can succeed, we must continue the push for reform that the president began with Race to the Top, bringing responsibility and accountability to our teachers and principals.
Chicago has adopted its own Race to the Top for early childhood education, allowing public schools, Head Start, charters and parochial schools to compete for dollars by improving the quality of their pre-kindergarten programs. In addition, this year Chicago Public Schools put into effect a 30 percent increase in class time, which means that when today’s kindergartners graduate high school, they will have benefited from 2½ more years’ worth of education.
In partnership with leading private-sector companies, we reengineered our six community colleges to focus each on skills training for jobs in one of Chicago’s six key growth fields. Democrats can be the party that closes the nation’s skills gap by making our community colleges a vital link between people looking for jobs and companies looking for skilled workers.
The strength of these investments is proven in the number of people we’re putting back to work: Chicago is first in the nation in terms of increase in employed residents, and for several months we have led the nation in year-over-year employment increases. We added 42,500 residents to the workforce in the past year alone — 8,000 more than the next highest U.S. city.
While Republicans are likely to become less intransigent on immigration, Democrats need to push for comprehensive immigration reform to ensure that, true to our history, we continue to be the party of opportunity and inclusion. Democrats in Congress should follow Chicago’s lead and develop a national “Citizenship Initiative” to provide the 8.5 million people eligible to become citizens with the information and resources they need to achieve the American dream.
Chicago’s initiatives come straight out of the playbook Barack Obama put forward in his campaign four years ago and has advocated since Day One of his presidency. But there are some issues that only Washington can tackle. Democrats at the national level must execute on the president’s agenda on energy and tax reform to ensure the future of not only our party but also the middle class.
By embracing the president’s “all of the above” strategy, Democrats can own the policies that will begin to make the United States energy-independent in the next four years, a goal that has eluded the past eight presidents.
While reforming tax policy is not the panacea that some believe, the experience of our party shows that pro-growth, pro-middle-class reforms can jump-start economic prosperity. When Democrats led on these policies during President Bill Clinton’s first term, we strengthened the earned-income tax credit. We balanced the budget in the second term, cutting spending while lowering taxes for working families, to lay the groundwork for a decade of prosperity. In President Obama’s second term, we have an opportunity to do the same and narrow the nation’s income gap.
If Democrats develop innovative policies that help Americans compete in a global economy, we will outperform Republicans on Election Day. It’s that simple.
We cannot allow Beltway chatter to hijack what the president accomplished in this election or to demean its value. We must never lose sight of the fact that while our victory in 2012 was aided by demographic advantages and sophisticated campaigning, our party’s ideas are what sealed the deal with middle-class voters.