By all appearances, President Obama has grudgingly concluded that this Congress will not govern anytime soon, but as we talked about
last week, White House officials aren't prepared to sit on their hands until January 2017. In many cases, this means advancing progressive policy goals through executive actions, even as congressional Republicans remain preoccupied with discredited "scandals."
And in other cases, it means hosting forums to shine a spotlight on the administration's priorities. Take today's White House event on a working-families agenda
, for example.
Being a working parent is relatively tough in the United States, thanks to a lack of policies guaranteeing flexibility, paid leave and affordable childcare. But the White House is aiming to change that this year with major policy summit on Monday and a months-long, multidimensional campaign to elevate the conversation about how federal policy can help parents juggle the demands of life and work. The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world, along with Papa New Guinea and Oman, lacking guaranteed paid maternity leave for working moms, according to the United Nations. Most developed countries require employers to provide some amount of paid maternity or paternity leave, paid family and sick leave, and affordable early childhood education for their workers.
Alissa Scheller's accompanying infographic in the Huffington piece reinforced a striking truth: the United States is among the worst in the world -- if not literally dead last -- when it comes to legally mandated paid-maternity leave, long-term paid sick days, and short-term paid sick days.
Obama himself had published an item
on the subject this morning, arguing, "Family leave, childcare, flexibility and a decent wage aren't frills. They're basic needs. They shouldn't be bonuses -- they should be the bottom line."
He also devoted his weekly address
to the subject. "Only three countries in the world report that they don't offer paid maternity leave," the president said. "And the United States is one of them. It's time to change that. A few states have acted on their own to give workers paid family leave, but this should be available to everyone."
And to that end, the White House is hosting an event today on the importance of these policies and what they would mean in the day-to-day lives of millions of families.
But what happens after the event ends?
We've already seen some developments of late in which the president has improved family benefits where he can through executive actions. That includes a higher minimum wage for employees of federal contractors and applying the Family and Medical Leave Act to same-sex couples, even in states that still reject marriage equality.
The fact remains, however, that the topics under discussion today are huge, systemic challenges that will need congressional action -- action that almost certainly will not happen anytime soon barring an unexpected surge in progressive turnout. Republican opposition to these kinds of private-sector regulations is simply too strong.
But there's something to be said for starting -- and elevating -- a public conversation. For much of the country, there's no public clamoring for paid family leave probably because many Americans don't realize that we're one of the only countries in the world that's never had it.
It's why changing public expectations matters. Jonathan Cohn, writing from his new perch
, wrote overnight about his "bad case of Sweden envy."
Raising a child and holding down a job is always hard. But in other developed countries, particularly those of Northern Europe and Western Europe, working parents have it much easier. The Swedes get up to 16 months of paid leave after the birth of a newborn, extra tax credits to defray the cost of child-rearing, plus access to regulated, subsidized day care facilities that stay open from 6:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night. The Danes and French benefit from similar arrangements. These programs are available to everybody, regardless of income, and the vast majority of working parents take advantage of them. Here in the U.S., most of us can only dream of such programs. And it's probably going to stay that way for a while. Local and state governments have introduced some initiatives of their own, but it's taking a lot of time and confined to limited parts of the country. On Monday, the White House is co-hosting a meeting of academics, advocates, and business leaders to talk about work and family. (I happen to be moderating a panel there.) But while the president has proposed some ambitious initiatives, chief among them a universal pre-kindergarten program, nobody expects action on them anytime soon. Americans might like the idea of more family-friendly policies, but this Congress isn't about to give it to them, particularly with the Republicans controlling one house. As Hillary Clinton conceded in a televised town hall last week, "I don't think, politically, we could get it now."
Then perhaps it's time to change the politics? That appears to be the point of today's White House event, which comes the same day as a House Oversight Committee hearing on missing IRS emails.