In a small Kansas town, President Barack Obama yesterday issued his most populist call to date in defense of America’s middle class, advocating for massive investment in education and job-creating infrastructure-building programs, and for protections for working people from predatory financial institutions. Calling the present economic situation “a make-or-break moment for the middle class,” the president said:
I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.
Adopting the language of the Occupy movement, Obama illustrated the gaping divide in the fortunes of the top 1 percent of income earners versus the rest of us:
In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year.
With unemployment still high and Republican members of Congress blocking virtually every attempt by the president to get people back to work, the Obama decried the “income inequality” that has resulted from years of trickle-down economics, a theory rooted in the disproven notion that the rich create wealth for everybody when their own coffers increase. Noting that today’s CEO averages an income that is 110 times that of the average worker, Obama explained:
This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try. We tell people — we tell our kids — that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class…And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.
The president’s choice of the town of Osawatomie, Kans., for delivering his hour-long speech echoed a stop made more than a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt, when the progressive Republican unveiled his economic plan for what he called a New Nationalism, which he described as “an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” Obama noted, to laughter from the crowd, that Roosevelt was derided as “a socialist” after presenting his plan.
In a school gymnasium festooned with red, white and blue bunting, Obama laid out the case for an economic patriotism that would serve the nation’s long-term economic interests while putting people back to work:
Today, manufacturers and other companies are setting up shop in places with the best infrastructure to ship their products, move their workers, and communicate with the rest of the world. That’s why the over one million construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing market collapsed shouldn’t be sitting at home with nothing to do. They should be rebuilding our roads and bridges; laying down faster railroads and broadband; modernizing our schools – all the things other countries are already doing to attract good jobs and businesses to their shores.
The president also decried Republicans’ refusal to move forward with his nomination of Richard Cordray to head the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Board, which is designed to protect the 99 percent from predatory lending and other dubious practices by financial institutions — an entity whose creation most Republicans opposed.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has called for the confirmation of Cordray, and repeatedly called for an infrastructure rebuilding program. In February, Trumka testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, saying:
These projects create substantial long-term employment in manufacturing, design and engineering when we use the domestic U.S. supply chain to produce the materials that will be needed—from concrete, wire, steel and pipes to high-speed trains. And all this restores revenues for state and local public services struggling with budget holes as well.