By MARSHA MERCER
As I listened the other day to a politician talk about ways to strengthen the economy, a thought flitted across my mind: “This guy has ideas. Maybe he should run for president.”
Ha! OK, I knew the speaker was President Barack Obama. But after nearly five years in the Oval Office, he still manages to sound like an outsider who could do great things if only he had the chance.
And that’s why -- with a job approval rating of only about 40 percent, his signature legislative achievement still under fire and his agenda in jeopardy -- the president hit the campaign trail. He launched a three-week push ostensibly to persuade people to sign up for health care online but also to remind voters why they re-elected him just a year ago.
Naturally, like many another political outsider, Obama has discovered that middle class frustrations “are at an all-time high.”
The botched rollout of the online health insurance exchanges didn’t instill confidence in him or the federal government, he concedes, but he insists that the law will stand and eventually will work just fine. Even so, that alone won’t cure the middle class malaise that started decades ago, he says. Malaise, by the way, is my word, not his.
“Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles – to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were,” he said.
Candidates of both parties cozy up to the middle class, of course, but the question is how. Republicans want government to stand aside. Obama and Democrats believe government has a role in ensuring equal opportunity.
“A dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility…has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead,” Obama said Wednesday at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that has provided several Obama administration insiders.
He revived a host of ideas: increase the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour; strengthen collective bargaining; end the wage disparity between men and women; tighten the tax code and use the additional revenue to rebuild roads and bridges, extend preschool to every child, and repeal the across-the-board spending cuts called the sequester.
“I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American…And I know I’ve raised this issue before, and some will ask why I raise the issue again right now,” he said.
His critics say it’s no mystery, that he’s trying to change the subject from the health care mess and trying to give Democrats ground to stand on in next year’s midterm congressional elections. So what?
Obama and everyone around him have apologized, and the marketplace system finally is running more smoothly. The elections in 11 months could make or break his last two years as president. He acknowledged he’s putting out his ideas as a marker.
“I realize we are not going to resolve all of our political debates over the best ways to reduce inequality and increase upward mobility this year, or next year, or in the next five years,” he says.
What’s important is “that we have a serious debate about these issues. For the longer that current trends are allowed to continue, the more it will feed the cynicism and fear that many Americans are feeling right now.”
Obama says he’s willing to work with Republicans. “If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide more ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them…” And so on. “You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you’re against.”
But can the battle-scarred Democratic president find common ground with battle-scarred Republican lawmakers?
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, complains that the House has passed nearly 150 bills that he claims would help the economy, but all have died in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. They include multiple attempts at repealing the health law.
“When will they start listening to the American people?” Boehner asks.
It’s hard to listen when both sides have turned a deaf ear to the other.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.