Obama's hollow speech
The Washington Post, February 13, 2013
At times like these, I wish I wasn't a policy wonk. Or at least not one who can't help asking if the reality of a president's proposals come close to the rhetoric they're couched in. I want to believe. I thought the president looked great up there. It's exciting to see man in full enjoying his moment. I'm inspired by a vision of America in which every child has access to high quality preschool, hard work earns a living wage, and manufacturing jobs come roaring back. I loved the "they deserve a vote" refrain on gun reform. And who couldn't love that 102-year-old woman who'd waited hours on her aching feet to vote? What better symbol could you find of the need for change?
And yet. People say when they read a story in the newspapers that they actually know something about, they can't believe how wrong the papers get it. Watching a State of the Union is a little like that for wonks. Obama's framework was exactly right: "How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?" But when you look at the details the White House put out on the president's proposals, it's less clear that he's offering real answers.
Take the minimum wage. I ought to be thrilled. My column last week argued that a minimum wage hike should be part of Obama's State of the Union, and there it was! It doesn't get much better than that for a columnist, to feel like you're a small part of the stream of argument helping nudge policy in the right direction.
And yet, Obama wants to take the minimum from $7.25 to $9, "in phases." If he gets it—a big "if," because of senseless Republican opposition—it would mean that when our community-organizer president leaves office, the minimum wage would be worth 15% less in real terms than it was in 1968. Would it be a life-enhancing boost for millions of Americans? For sure. Is it what a decent minimum in America ought to be? No.
Or take manufacturing. Who isn't a fan of the "in-shoring" of jobs that occur as the relative economic attractiveness of making things abroad diminishes? But in a $3.8 trillion budget in a $16 trillion economy, Obama's one-time $1 billion investment in "manufacturing institutes" feels like he's playing at the margins of the margins. And the bigger problem—which both presidents and CEOs are uncomfortable admitting—is that the manufacturing jobs coming back pay $14 to $18 an hour. These are not the classic auto jobs of U.S. manufacturing's heydey that paid $40 an hour plus ample health and pension benefits.
Is it good to get these jobs back? Absolutely. Is making more things at home linked to subsequent innovation here as well? You bet. But are another million such jobs an "answer" to what ails the middle class? Not a chance.
Or take universal pre-kindergarten. Obama issued a fantastic, overdue call to action. In other advanced nations, this is simply standard practice. But the White House says the president wants to work with Congress to help the states make this happen. No details are offered. Getting from here to universal pre-kindergarten will cost money, almost certainly on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year. States are already strapped by soaring Medicaid costs, not to mention unfunded pension and retiree health benefits. If Obama doesn't find federal cash to make this a reality (in part by slowing the outsized growth of programs serving seniors—growth that he sounds uninterested in restraining), it will remain an important but hollow aspiration.
Then there's college costs. Building on a proposal from his campaign, Obama will implement a "scorecard" that gives families a better sense of costs as well as employment and salary prospects for graduates. He'll ask Congress to condition some modest chunk of aid or student loan eligibility on more cost effective practices by colleges and universities.
But his goal—to slow the growth of increase in tuition by half of what it would otherwise be in the next decade—will leave students in 2016 with more debt than today. And the cost of college as share of median family income will remain dramatically higher than it was 30 years ago (when, unlike today, Pell grants covered the lion's share of the bill for needy students). The only real hope is that the advent of things like massive open online courses (or MOOCs) offered by outfits like Coursera or Udacity will challenge college cost structures and pricing practices far more boldly than the White House dares.
I know governance is hard. I believe Obama and his team are pushing the edge of American consensus as they see it. I know if the president has his way many people would be better off. And divided government makes even modest progress hard to achieve.
Still, taking a longer view, it's hard not to think something is deeply awry. Even if Obama's agenda becomes law, after eight years of the most progressive president in memory, America will still be a country in which work is less well-rewarded, college is far costlier, and poor children's life chances more limited by accident of birth than in virtually every other wealthy nation. American exceptionalism indeed.
If this is what two terms of a "socialist" president ends up producing, what will progressives do for an encore?