Editorial: Obama: ‘We live in a time of extraordinary change’
In the president’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night, he nailed what’s at the root of so much of the political angst riling the country: the rapid pace of change fueled by a global economy causing widespread job disruption among working-class Americans.
“We live in a time of extraordinary change—change that is reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet, our place in the world. It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists, plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”
If you’re an American working in the coalmines, or in manufacturing jobs whose work is being exported overseas, you’re angry about that change and feeling vulnerable that you won’t find another job that pays half as well. In that mindset, it’s easy to be mad and want to believe politicians who sell the belief that if only they were elected president, their bolder leadership would beat back the hands of time and restore things to the way they were.
It is, of course, so much snake oil.
The truth for the past 20 years is that the global economy is forcing economic disruptions throughout all advanced economies. The panacea is not to resist that change, but, as the president said, make “change work for us… Our unique strengths as a nation—our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to rule of law—these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.”
In looking toward the future, President Obama asked Americans to think about four important questions:
• How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy;
• How do we make technology work for us and not against us, especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change;
• How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman; and
• How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?
Fair questions that allowed the president to set the record straight on a few issues, and focus the public’s attention on longer-term solutions and goals, rather than being drown by the fear so pronounced in the reactionary politics of his critics. It was his review of the nation’s economy, however, that corrects the myths of the political right and charts a constructive way forward.
Polls have showed that Americans who watch and consume primarily conservative media think the economy is in the worst tailspin in its history. They’d be wrong. The dollar in America is surprisingly strong throughout the world precisely because the country has weathered the Great Recession of 2007-8 (at the end of President George W. Bush’s term in office, when the country was losing 700,000 jobs a month) better than most other nations in the world. More than 14 million jobs have been created in the U.S. since President Obama was elected, the president said, adding that the nation has just seen the strongest two years of job growth since the 1990s (when President Bill Clinton was in office.) He noted that American manufacturing has produced 900,000 new jobs in the past six years, while the nation’s unemployment rate was cut in half compared to when he took office on the heels of the failing economy he inherited from Bush.
While today’s economy is strong, the president continued, he helped define the changes that have caused so much angst for workers — a straightforward analysis that all should understand.
“Today,” he said, “technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated. Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and they face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top. All of these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs, even when the economy is growing…. And although none of these trends are unique to America, they do offend our uniquely American belief that everybody who works hard should get a fair shot.”
To understand that fundamental change is to also embrace the need for more education, and at every age group. President Obama’s response is clear: “real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job.” That means, providing Pre-K for all and offering every student hands-on computer science and math classes; making college affordable for every American; and providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student. In addition to a better education and training, Obama advocated for “benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security;” that is, health care benefits that you don’t lose when you change jobs, retirement packages that go with the worker; and a Social Security and Medicare system that will do the job. One answer to middleclass security, the president said, is to strengthen those benefits, not weaken them.
The president was frank in his disagreement with the Republican Congress on the suitable role of government in “making sure the economy is not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations,” noting that “food stamp recipients (a favorite target of Republicans to showcase unnecessary spending) did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did.” He also countered a popular Republican myth, noting “immigrants aren’t the principal reasons wages haven’t gone up. Those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.”
The president broke new ground with his unexpected call to put American in the forefront of finding a cure for cancer, appointing Vice President Joe Biden “in charge of mission control” and comparing the quest to the country’s goal in the 1960s to put a man on the moon; he emphasized the necessity curbing fossil fuel use, and pledged to invest in the future of renewable energy and reduce the subsidies of dirty fuels. He spoke on foreign affairs and outlined his vision of what America strength means, while criticizing the irresponsible political speech among Republican candidates “that targets people because of race or religion.” Such rhetoric “diminishes us in the eyes of the world.” he said. “It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country.”
Finally, the president took on the current political system as failing the country. He singled out the need to reverse the perverse effects of gerrymandering, the need for campaign finance reform, and making voting easier not more restrictive. “We have to change the system to reflect our better selves,” he said, implying that the current system brings out the worst.
It was vintage Obama: eloquent, thoughtful, humble, and regretful that he wasn’t able to unite Americans in the ways he had hoped. He appealed to our better selves and to a better future, even if he was unable to overcome the rancor that has come to define the GOP throughout his presidency.
Angelo S. Lynn