Barack Obama is in "trouble" again, as reports surfaced of remarks he made at a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco last weekend and the Clinton and McCain campaigns--yet again singing from the same songbook--raced to condemn him as elitist and out of touch. Here's the apparently offending statement:
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
The great sin here evidently was to suggest that voters' attachments to "guns or religion" as criteria on which to vote isn't sincere and heartfelt, and that people are "bitter" about the inability or refusal of Washington to address their economic concerns. Neither the McCain campaign, which simply used the comment to blast Obama as a Kerry-like liberal elitist, nor the Clintons, who risibly claim that Obama is trying to divide the country between "those who are enlightened and those who are not," bother to address the underlying premise of the comment: that the residents of "these small towns" have been fucked over both by macroeconomic changes and the near-total absence of governmental response to help them cope.
Admittedly, he didn't phrase this as well as he could have. "Guns or religion" are loaded words in American politics, concepts near and dear to millions of voters (and not just economically marginalized conservatives or Republicans; far from it, in fact). By using them, he distracted the audience from the crucial underlying point.
Interestingly, a Times column just three days ago provides a lot of the backstory behind that "bitterness." In a brilliant piece about the economic expansion of this decade that's both chilling for its content and heartening in how it connects the dots, David Leonhardt gets at both what's fueling the dissatisfaction in the electorate, and why it's going to be so difficult to address:
The bigger problem is that the now-finished boom was, for most Americans, nothing of the sort. In 2000, at the end of the previous economic expansion, the median American family made about $61,000, according to the Census Bureau’s inflation-adjusted numbers. In 2007, in what looks to have been the final year of the most recent expansion, the median family, amazingly, seems to have made less — about $60,500.
This has never happened before, at least not for as long as the government has been keeping records. In every other expansion since World War II, the buying power of most American families grew while the economy did. You can think of this as the most basic test of an economy’s health: does it produce ever-rising living standards for its citizens?
The slowdown began in the 1970s, with an oil shock that raised the cost of everyday living. The technological revolution and the rise of global trade followed, reducing the bargaining power of a large section of the work force. In recent years, the cost of health care has aggravated the problem, by taking a huge bite out of most workers’ paychecks.
Real median family income more than doubled from the late 1940s to the late ’70s. It has risen less than 25 percent in the three decades since. Statistics like these are now so familiar as to be almost numbing. But the larger point is still crucial: the modern American economy distributes the fruits of its growth to a relatively narrow slice of the population.
Leonhardt makes the point that postwar prosperity didn't just happen, but was fueled by conscious measures to grow the middle class like the GI Bill, the highway system, and all that money invested in R&D. He suggests that we can do this again, and that finding the specific means and winning the related political fights will (or at least should) be Job Number One for the next president. But, he adds, this won't be easy:
[T]here is still a lack of strategic seriousness to the discussion, as Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution notes. After all, the United States spends a lot of money on education already but has still lost its standing as the country with the highest college graduation rate in the world. (South Korea and a couple of other countries have passed us, while Japan, Britain and Canada are close behind.)
The same goes for public works. Spending on physical infrastructure is at a 20-year high as a share of gross domestic product, but too much of the money is spent on the inefficient pet programs championed by individual members of Congress. Pork barrel spending does not add up to a national economic strategy.
Health care and taxes will have to be part of the discussion, too. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel of the National Institutes of Health pointed out to me that a serious effort to curtail wasteful medical spending would directly help workers. It would spare them from paying the insurance premiums and taxes that now cover that care.
The tax code, meanwhile, has become far more favorable to high-income workers at the same time that they — and they alone — have received large pretax raises. That doesn’t make much sense, does it?
Here's where we get to the core of Obama's message: it's not that we haven't tried to make investments that advance the general prosperity, but the problem is that the twisted, insider-dominated politics of Washington, DC render those investments inefficient or counter-productive. In education, it's political game-players like the Loyal Bushies and the too-powerful teachers' unions who resist accountability at the cost of student outcomes. Regarding infrastructure, the elevation of pork as the guiding principle of funding (a killer issue for McCain, btw, if he has the guts and cleverness to seize it) is why we get a quarter-billion dollars invested in a Bridge to Nowhere while bridges that support hundreds of thousands of cars per day are at risk of collapse. We need not even name winners and losers when it comes to health care and tax policy during the Bush/Clinton/Bush years.
The question is whether Obama can change any of that. I'm skeptical, as you pretty much have to be if you've lived through the last 30 years. But at least he somewhat acknowledges the problem. His response Friday night, just an hour and a half or so after his rival campaigns went on the attack, suggests an awareness that he's stumbled upon a potential winning issue:
YouTube of Response in Indiana