Obama makes his case for the middle class

Updated
 

After a whole lot of buildup from the White House, President Obama delivered one of those rare speeches that has its own name: “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class.” If you missed it, the entirety of the video is above, and the transcript is online here. (If you’re really curious, here’s the speech as it was written on the page, which varied quite a bit from how it was delivered. Obama rarely sticks to what’s on the teleprompter, but he adlibbed more than usual today.)

It’s pretty difficult to summarize an hour-long speech in a brief blog post, and as you might expect, Obama covered a lot of ground, stressing his vision for the “cornerstones of middle-class security” – specifically, a good job with decent wages and benefits, a good education, home ownership, retirement security, and health care security. The same speech highlighted the president’s approach to “a new foundation for stronger, more durable economic growth,” which includes, among other things, a more level playing field for consumers and investors.

The differences between this speech and others you’ve probably heard him deliver on similar topics were minimal, but Ezra Klein raised a good point about the mistaken assumptions about the “pivot” to jobs.

The “pivot” here isn’t back to a topic Obama never left. It’s to a different way of looking at the jobs problem. Obama said it himself. The key line in Obama’s speech was this one: “What we need isn’t a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan, but a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades.”

This speech marked the Obama administration’s pivot from emergency measures to create jobs right now to a more long-term agenda for creating jobs. The speeches Obama previewed Wednesday are on manufacturing, health care, education, home ownership, retirement security, and social mobility. All are worthy topics. None of them offer much hope to someone who’s jobless right now.

In economist terms, Obama is moving from trying to fix “cyclical” problems – namely, the joblessness caused by an awful recession – to “structural” problems.

Quite right. This was a very forward-thinking speech. While Republican leaders regularly present a vision of a different kind of America – one without a safety net, without access to affordable health care, without retirement security, without education, without environmental protections, without the right to organize or bargain collectively, but plenty of Ayn Rand-approved “freedom” – this was the president’s opportunity to sketch out a more progressive alternative.

This is not to say, however, that Obama ignored the here and now.

“Tomorrow, I’ll also visit the Port of Jacksonville, Florida to offer new ideas for doing what America has always done best, which is building things…. We’ve got ports that aren’t ready for the new supertankers that are going to begin passing through the new Panama Canal in two years’ time. If we don’t get that done, those tankers are going to go someplace else. We’ve got more than 100,000 bridges that are old enough to qualify for Medicare.

“Businesses depend on our transportation systems, on our power grids, on our communications networks. And rebuilding them creates good-paying jobs right now that can’t be outsourced.”

But the speech was premised on the notion that we’ve endured a terrible crisis, struggled through, and came out the other end. We took a beating, but now we’re back on our feet, we’ve brushed ourselves off, and we’re ready for what’s next.

And what Obama thinks should be next is a center-left approach, built on the belief that lasting prosperity comes from an economy that rejects a top-down model in which we help the rich and wait for wealth to someday trickle down, but focuses instead on a “middle-out” model that emphasizes the middle class. (The president used the phrase “middle class” 25 times in this speech.)

If the president’s detractors have anything even remotely as compelling, I’m eager to see it.

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Obama makes his case for the middle class

Updated