Adults took over Washington, D.C., and now America can catch its breath after another manufactured crisis in our economy: 16 days of a federal shutdown that disrupted virtually every aspect of the economy, from small business loans to veterans’ funerals. But, what now?
Clearly, Republicans hurt their brand, recklessly risking default on America's debt obligations they helped create with tax cuts for the rich. Republicans are now grappling with what to do with their tea party extremists whose obstinate behavior prolonged the crisis they set out to create. The American people have resoundingly rejected that sort of behavior of bargaining by ultimatum and taking the government and the American people hostage to their demands. Republicans must come to grips with having lost the presidential election and the national debate on their policy themes. To show they can govern responsibly, they must now find how to offer constructive engagement in the national dialogue to gain compromise on the course of policies. Elections have consequences, one of which must be acceptance of the will of the American people to move in a different direction. Taking the course of passive resistance to refuse to do their work to pass budgets and pay America’s bills is not acceptable.
But, having won this round, and in hopes Republicans understand their role is to be a partner in governing, the president also has challenges ahead. He must continue to take on and point out the extremist nature of the tea party demands. The tea party has made clear it does not negotiate, it does not compromise. The president is not negotiator in chief; his job is not to yield our nation’s fortunes to the whims of a vocal, and wrong, minority like the tea party. His job is to unite the 80% of us who do not have their extreme views.
First, the president needs to recognize that since 2010, he has paid too much attention to pleasing the tea party and its views and too little attention and focus on the real issues at hand. Five years since the financial markets collapsed, the economy is not well. The tea party believes, and the president has compromised to help them get their policy view implemented, that the problem is government. He froze the pay of federal workers and has reduced the size of the federal workforce. He now has federal expenditures at levels lower than in 2008 under George W. Bush. The federal deficit, measured against the size of the economy, is half the size it was when he took office, and the long-term debt and deficit outlook shows it is a diminishing problem. This is the economic frame of the tea party. It is a vision that if we shrink the government, all will be fine. If the government gets out of the way, corporations will be more profitable, the stock market will boom, the rich will get richer and investment in the economy will soar and the economy will expand.
And the tea party is getting the economy shaped, according their vision: corporate profits have soared during this recovery. They are higher and make a growing share of the economy while wages are a shrinking share. The stock market is operating at record levels for its indexes. The rich are getting richer. Their incomes continue to climb as their share of income reaches even higher levels.
But what has this austerity gotten us? We still have nearly 2 million fewer payroll jobs than in January 2008, and the share of Americans who are employed remains stuck at its 2010 level, more than 3 percentage points below its 2008 level. The median income of families is still lower than in 2008. The number of U.S. children in poverty is higher than in 2008. Our investment in our children’s basic education, expenditure per pupil in kindergarten through high school, is near record lows. Families’ number one debt after their mortgage is now loans to pay for college education to make up for the gap in investment we are failing to make in higher education.
This experiment with compromising with the tea party on its vision of what is hurting the economy is clearly failing. It isn’t just that the tea party’s tactics are wrong—it is that their policies take us nowhere. This isn’t about compromising. It is about leadership and vision.
In 2008, President Barack Obama campaigned with the slogan, “Yes, We Can.” To Americans convinced that George Bush had taken us in the wrong direction, it inspired a belief that we could transform from policies to serve the rich to policies that put America’s families first. The American public bought into the idea that a new metric would rule: America is doing well if America’s families were doing well. We wouldn’t measure the economy by the stock market index and the health of Wall Street; we would measure success by our children and their well-being.
The vision of the tea party is clear. This economy is doing well. If most Americans are not doing well, it is because they are lazy malcontents. Corporate profits are soaring, Wall Street is all smiles, the rich are getting richer so those who aren’t on one of those trains have only themselves to blame. We just need to continue on the path we are on: smaller and smaller government. We had an election in 2012 when Mitt Romney got to deliver that vision—and he lost.
President Obama must return to leading. There needs to be a clear vision of where America is headed. There has to be clear acknowledgement that this path is failing us. His speech on Thursday did not do that. Cutting people off from food—as the tea party-led House did with its cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that also would cut more than 200,000 children from reduced price school lunches—in service to helping shrink the government to make the world safer for corporate profits and tax-free lives for the rich is not measuring America's success by our children’s well-being. Threatening the future of Social Security and Medicaid benefits for our children who currently have the lowest level of employment of any American generation, in jobs that pay poorly and provide no retirement benefits, in the name of smaller government and lower taxes for the rich is not a vision of a society that measures its success based on the well-being of its children. Continuing to fight against funding for teachers to replace the hundreds of thousands lost to our children’s classrooms, overcrowding their classrooms and cutting our investment in our children’s education so the government can be smaller and the rich richer is not creating a society focused on the well-being of our children. Letting our infrastructure collapse, so our children will be faced with even higher bills to fix our roads, update our water and sewer systems and keep our ports operable, so the rich can pay fewer taxes, is not putting the welfare of our children first.
Can we use this moment to return to a vision where the American people get a government that works to create an economy that serves them, rather than a government that thinks the role of the people is to serve corporate profits? Can President Obama lead away from the destructive path we are on, stuck on tripling down on the tea party vision of even more deficit reduction? Can President Obama admit the economy is failing Main Street and set a new vision aimed at the security of America’s families? Can President Obama give voice to the concern of the unemployed who have their benefits threatened when they are set to expire in December, so they are part of the crisis? Can President Obama heal the damage being done to our federal civil servants who continue with frozen pay and serve as cannon fodder for political games rather than the respected protectors of our safety and providers of our civil life? Can President Obama stop selling trade agreements that boost corporate profits at the expense of American jobs and communities as the necessary sacrifice to corporations’ health and instead focus on agreements that stop the global race to the bottom on wages, workers’ safety and the environment?
In 2008, then-Sen. Obama extolled us, “Yes, We Can.” In 2013, let’s hope he still believes in America’s people enough to double down the bets on us. He needs to lead in uniting the 80% who want to believe that we just won back our government, so the government can serve us: “Can We?”