Friday, July 26, 2013

Obama in Galesburg: On Jobs, Half Misguided, Half Waiting for Action

On Wednesday, at Knox College in Galesburg Illinois, President Barack Obama gave what is supposed to be the first of six speeches on the economy.  The State of the Union-like performance lasted over an hour, during which he mentioned a wide range of economic issues.  How did he do on the jobs crisis?

Near the beginning, Obama showed exceptionally good understanding of what has happened over the past 65 years, saying that in the postwar decades (the Winning by Default Years), “whether you owned a company, swept its floors, or worked anywhere in between, this country offered you a basic bargain – a sense that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and benefits, the chance to buy a home [and] to save for retirement.”  After that (after Work’s New Age started in 1973), “that bargain began to fray.  Technology made some jobs obsolete.  Global competition sent others overseas… The link between higher productivity and people’s wages and salaries was severed.”  He deftly captured what happened around 2000 by saying “Towards the end of those three decades, a housing bubble, credit cards, and a churning financial sector kept the economy artificially juiced up,” and did the same for the time at the end of that decade, by when “the bubble had burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, their homes, and their savings.”  As good a summary on these years I have never seen from a politician.

Unfortunately, the speech went downhill from there. 

At three points, Obama mentioned exclusive, overriding, or number-one priorities:  reducing inequality, better conditions for the middle class, and “to make this country work for working Americans again.”  Solid words, but his ideas on how he would accomplish those things were lacking.  Once again he overreached on manufacturing, wishing openly for “rebuilding our manufacturing base,” and, though properly wanting to encourage more companies to make things in this country, he seemed to expect that sector to become more broad-based than it realistically can.  He talked for a long time about better education, probably the worst red herring in the jobs crisis as nobody can train or educate Americans to work for the benefit-inclusive $400 to $500 per month Indian call center workers are getting, and made a statement, “In an age when jobs know no borders, companies will also seek out the country that boasts the most talented citizens, and reward them with good pay,” which is therefore demonstrably false.  As is in his previous efforts, Obama seemed to yearn for what might be called old-time prosperity, imagining romantic scenes such as “the joy of etching a child’s height into the door of their brand new home.”

Barack Obama is a politician, and speaks accordingly.  Images such as the last are designed to appeal emotionally, and they often work.  However, the day when almost all Americans should own a house of their own has passed.  We may have services and capabilities, such as Facebook and free or nearly-free long distance calling, that connect us far better than before, but most of us will simply not be able to afford to buy “homes.”  Holding that up as the norm is ultimately destructive, and as I wrote two weeks ago Americans need to reduce, not increase, their expectations.  He also praised himself by saying that in the past 40 months there had been 7.2 million new business jobs, without mentioning that his selected timeframe began after the bottom point of a recession, that government had lost jobs during that time, or that population increase had absorbed about 5 million of them.  Not dishonest, but incomplete, and although Obama may be swayed by his career choice to say such things, we do not need to believe them.

The speech did have its constructive ideas.  His third major jobs solution, after more manufacturing and more education, was a national infrastructure building and repair initiative.  I see such a plan as almost certain to start over the next ten years, as conservatives won’t stand forever for seeing their country fall apart, liberals will see the jobs program as a logical way of helping the unemployed, and business people will know the labor and materials will never be cheaper than they are now.  The effort would not need to be limited to construction-related work, as millions of people are able and willing to take on social service and community service jobs which simply don’t exist now.   He also mentioned the idea of universities finding ways of shortening degree programs, something worthy of serious attention.       

Good ideas or not, though, these speeches will not be enough by themselves.  As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank put it, this effort was “roughly the 10th time the White House has made such a pivot to refocus on jobs and growth.”  Indeed, just last week Obama was discussing racism.  The speech contained some fine challenges to uncooperative Republicans, but that wasn’t the first time for those either. 

Near the end of the Galesburg effort, Obama said “we have made it through the worst of yesterday’s winds.”  That is not true.  We are four years past the end of the last recession, and there is no reason why we will not have another one, which could be at least as severe.  Yesterday’s Dallas Morning News editorial made three crucial points.  First, we need more new jobs than we have been getting.  Second, Obama needs to “get his hands dirty in the legislative trenches” by working intensely and directly with individual Congressmen, especially Republicans.  Third, speeches in themselves, without strong follow-up action, are not leadership. 

One of Obama’s remaining economic talks will be on jobs.  I am glad to hear that, and am optimistic about what he will say.  But, no matter how effective, eloquent, and technically superb it turns out to be, more than the speech itself must happen.

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