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Making the Struggle of Every Day People the Central Focus of the National Debate
In today's New York Times Week in Review, Bill Keller has a thoughtful look at recent events in China and Russia, and what might be called the end of the end of history. I thought Fareed Zakaria captured this sentiment best in his recent book when he described this new era of geopolitics with a simple powerful phrase - Americans are witnessing what he calls "the rise of the rest."
Perhaps after eight years of talk of Basra, Kabul and tax cuts, we will look back at this month as the month that Rip Van Winkle-like Americans woke from their conservative-induced slumber and began to see the 21st century as it is, not as portrayed by the Rovian/Chenesian fantasy of the last eight years.
Perhaps in no area is this new pragmatism more important than on what it means for our people here at home. The next President faces one domestic challenge more important than all the others - how to get wages and incomes rising again.
For most of the Bush era, the American economy performed well by traditional metrics. GDP, productivity, corporate profits and the stock market were strong. But despite this period of growth and strong productivity gains, the typical American family saw its annual income drop by about a $1,000 a year and the rate at which new jobs were created has been slower than any other recovery since the Depression. According to the laws of economics, it was not supposed to be possible to see robust growth in GDP and productivity and see incomes drop. In fact. it has never happened before in the modern economic history of the United States.
Every day Americans figured all this out long before coastal elites did. Our 2007 analysis of public opinion and the 2006 exit polls shows that it was the economy that drove the GOP from office much more than the war. As has been reported in many places, the American people are more unhappy with the state of the nation than anytime since the 1930s. The American people have understood for years that the people running their government has not turned their attention to the most important challenge they face in their own lives - making ends meet in a much more competitive globalized world. And small-bore solutions to this enormous challenge - off shore drilling, children's health insurance, raising the minimum wage, middle class tax cuts - will be treated as they have been treated by the American people these last few years - "that's nice, but where is the long-term, sustained, comprehensive plan big enough to actually improve our lives and the lives of our families?"
Led by Dr. Rob Shapiro, figuring all this out has been the primary focus of NDN's Globalization Initiative these last four years. I won't repeat the major recommendations from our project now, but offer three general observations:
1) It is critical that our political leaders explain to the American people that if we want to maintain our place in the world, and our standard of living, that we will have to "try harder." The rest of the world is rising, catching up, learning our game - as was the goal of foreign policy these last 60 years - and no longer can be seen as characters from an Indiana Jones movie. To compete in this world, this emerging world of the 21st century, we will have do more; invest more; modernize our infrastructure; lessen our dependence on expensive and dirty energy sources; make pensions and health care more portable and accessible; do more to equip our workers and kids with the modern skills they need to compete; accelerate innovation and the formation of "new businesses;" make our global economic liberalization strategies smarter and more modern...this new era must be seen as one of "investment" in a better future, and calls for an anachronistic politics of austerity must be rejected....
2) This economic and public opinion dynamic developed before the recent slowdown, credit crunch, housing crisis and energy/commodity price surge, and thus will not be solved by focusing on these recent developments in the economy. Because incomes went down during a period of sustained growth, the solutions offered by our leaders in the next few years must recognize that the traditional way we help Americans get ahead - by creating macroeconomic growth - is no longer guarenteed to improve the lives of every day people BECAUSE IT DID NOT WORK SO FAR IN THIS DECADE.
3) Given the enormity of this challenge, we here at NDN hope that helping Americans get ahead in this much more competitive world becomes the central focus of the elections this year. In several recent interviews, Senator Obama has said that his three priorities are Iraq, health care and climate change. Not so sure this is the best answer. He needs to be able say that he wants to be judged on whether he can raise Americans' standard of living, and then make doing so the central organizing principle of his campaign and Administration. I think a better response would be "I want to improve the lives of every day Americans who have worked so hard and gotten so little these last few years, and bring the troops home from Iraq." Or something like that.
A risky strategy some might say. For what happens if incomes don't rise? I think we already know the answer to that, as the GOP has shown us in recent years. If the standard of living of Americans don't improve in the next few years, the Democrats should expect to suffer the same fate as the GOP in this decade, and find themselves out of power. Unlike China and Russia, we still are a democracy, and as such, must make the fate of the people of the United States the central focus of our politics...