What Obama Did/Didn’t Accomplish for Working Class Americans

You can’t consider Obama’s accomplishments without acknowledging all the proposals Republicans blocked.

As President Obama’s second term comes to a close, we’re seeing a lot of articles about his legacy – and there will likely to be a lot more over the next few months. Most of them take a positive spin and attempt to summarize his accomplishments over these last eight years. But there is also the approach of taking a look at what he didn’t get done. That is actually something the President himself addressed last month in an interview with Steve Inskeep.

I’ve been frustrated by some things that I did not complete, that I couldn’t wrap and mail and ship before I got out of here. Immigration reform being a good example. Getting infrastructure done, you know, we got $2 trillion worth of infrastructure. If we got working on that now, we’d be growing a lot faster, the unemployment rate would be even lower, wages would be higher.

So there are things that we haven’t gotten done. Obviously, there are — there areas internationally where I’ve been enormously frustrated. You look at Syria being the most prominent example, where you’ve got a heartbreaking situation and not a lot of good choices.

It is interesting to compare that to what Eric Alterman wrote about “The Hole in Obama’s Legacy.” He starts out by describing a small dinner he was invited to attend back in 2005 with then-Senator Barack Obama.

He talked about campaign stops that he made in former factory towns and manufacturing centers across Illinois. These were places that, until recently, had kept generations of working-class men gainfully employed. He worried that he had nothing to say to them that would be both honest and hopeful. He had gathered us, he explained, to find out if the members of the progressive community had some good ideas to help these people that he might be able to champion as senator.

Here is how Alterman judges Obama’s legacy on that issue:

And yet Obama never even came close to solving the problem he raised at that dinner: What to say to the white working-class people whose way of life was being destroyed by the vagaries of global capitalism coupled with a political system that responded first and foremost to the wealthy? This, too, is part of his legacy. And it has helped to give rise to a billionaire demagogue, who has answered Obama’s question with a combination of racism, xenophobia, false promises, and threats of violent reprisals.

Most progressives I know would say that Obama barely even tried to fix the problem he raised that night.

There is a big “tell” right in the beginning of that analysis. Did you catch it? Alderman focuses exclusively on the white working class. As Jamelle Bouie documented so clearly, that excludes a growing portion of that economic group.

In the collective mind’s eye of political pundits and observers, the “working class” is what it was a generation ago: largely white and mostly male, with a heavy presence in trades and factories. There are still Americans who fit this description. But they’re also a shrinking portion of the working class, and the attention they receive perennially from political observers—many of whom see them as the pivot around which American politics turns—is entirely out of proportion to their declining numbers…

People of color make up more than a third of America’s labor force, and they’re a large and growing plurality of working-class people in particular. As of this year, 23.5 percent of working people are Hispanic; 15 percent are black; and 3.5 percent are Asian American. That’s a total of 42 percent.

Even so, as we all know, Alterman is right that Donald Trump is primarily appealing to the white (male) working class. The question then becomes: is it President Obama’s silence on their plight that is fueling the rise of the billionaire demagogue? That is a question that keeps coming up during this election cycle. Perhaps it would be helpful to take a look at what this President has said/done/not done on this issue.

To begin, I’d agree with this statement from Alterman: “Obama never even came close to solving the problem he raised at that dinner.” That is a big reason why the President said that one of his big frustrations was the inability to get infrastructure done. Spending on that is one of the key components to addressing the challenges that are facing working class Americans.

But I would propose that President Obama had a lot to say over these eight years to working class Americans. Let’s start with his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas back in 2011:

But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.

Or how about what he said at an Associated Press luncheon in 2012?

This is not just another run-of-the-mill political debate. I’ve said it’s the defining issue of our time, and I believe it. It’s why I ran in 2008. It’s what my presidency has been about. It’s why I’m running again. I believe this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and I can’t remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so unambiguously clear.

Then there was a speech he gave later that year on economic mobility.

I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President. It was at the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.

Those are just a few examples of the many times he made that point. Do you suppose that if white working Americans didn’t hear him address their issues, perhaps they had a problem with the messenger rather than the message?

An appropriate retort right now would be to say, “Yeah, but what did he actually DO about it? Talk is cheap.”

It is important to note that almost every domestic accomplishment of this President has had an impact on working class Americans. That goes for everything from his stimulus packages to break us out of the Great Recession to the bailout of the auto industry to changing rules about overtime pay to ensuring access to affordable health care and college loans.

But I was reminded of the proposals that Republicans successfully blocked – the most significant being the American Jobs Act back in 2011. Because it was so completely ignored by Republicans back when this country was still climbing out of the Great Recession, too many people have completely forgotten about it. Perhaps you’ll suggest that the President didn’t do enough to rally the country in support of his plan. But that ignores the fact that he convened a joint session of Congress to discuss it and then talked about it in numerous weekly addresses, in press conferences and on the campaign trail.

We can discuss whether or not President Obama should be held accountable for the fact that Republicans were successful in obstructing his proposals to address the challenges facing working class Americans (we can add universal pre-K and free community college to the list), although that begins to take on a form of Green Lanternism when it comes to the role of POTUS in our divided government. But for Alterman to discuss the lack of progress without even mentioning the obstruction he faced is to buy into the Republican frame in a dangerous way.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.