President Obama Takes on the Role of Explainer-in-Chief

Perhaps there is something about being a former president or an almost-former president that provides you with a particular perspective. I wondered about that when I watched President Obama’s speech in Elkhart, Indiana yesterday. He sounded an awful lot like the “explainer-in-chief” that Bill Clinton became at the 2012 Democratic Convention. I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that both of these men became passionate about the Democratic vision for our country once they spent eight years doing everything they could to make it a reality.

President Obama set out to address the economic anxiety that is under discussion in this election. He started out by reminding everyone of the progress we’ve made since he came into office. Then he deconstructed the myths that Republicans perpetuate about the economy.

1. The federal government keeps growing and wasting your money and giving your tax dollars to people who don’t deserve it.

2. The notion that his administration has killed jobs through overregulation.

3. Other countries are killing us on trade.

4. That immigrants are taking all of our jobs.

At the end, he outlined policies going forward that could provide more financial security for Americans – like raising wages; giving workers a bigger voice in the economy; preparing our children and our workers for the high-tech, high-wage jobs of tomorrow; investing in infrastructure; making it easier for working Americans to save for retirement or bounce back from a lost job; making sure trade works for us and not against us; strengthening, not weakening, the rules that keep Wall Street in check and going after folks who avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

In between all of that, he got to the root of the problem.

So, look, here’s my main point: The primary story that Republicans have been telling about the economy is not supported by the facts. It’s just not. They repeat it a lot – but it’s not supported by the facts. But they say it anyway. Now, why is that? It’s because it has worked to get them votes, at least at the congressional level.

Because – and here, look, I’m just being blunt with you – by telling hardworking, middle-class families that the reason they’re getting squeezed is because of some moochers at the bottom of the income ladder, because of minorities, or because of immigrants, or because of public employees, or because of feminists – because of poor folks who aren’t willing to work, they’ve been able to promote policies that protect powerful special interests and those who are at the very top of the economic pyramid. That’s just the truth.

I hope you don’t mind me being blunt about this, but I’ve been listening to this stuff for a while now. And I’m concerned when I watch the direction of our politics. I mean, we have been hearing this story for decades. Tales about welfare queens, talking about takers, talking about the “47 percent.” It’s the story that is broadcast every day on some cable news stations, on right-wing radio, it’s pumped into cars, and bars, and VFW halls all across America, and right here in Elkhart.

And if you’re hearing that story all the time, you start believing it. It’s no wonder people think big government is the problem. No wonder public support for unions is so low. No wonder that people think that the deficit has gone up under my presidency when it’s actually gone down. No wonder that – they did a survey, a lot of white Americans think reverse discrimination is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities, even though black unemployment is twice as high as white unemployment. And the typical Hispanic woman makes 55 cents for every dollar a white man earns, and there are only a handful of women running Fortune 500 companies.

But that’s the story that’s been told. And I’m here to say, Elkhart, seven and a half years since I first came here, we’ve got to challenge the assumptions behind this economic story. And the reason is it has ended up dividing Americans who actually have common economic interests and should be working together for a better deal from the people who serve them. And it’s made people cynical about government, and it’s kept working families from pushing our political system to actually address our economic challenges in a realistic way. Families of all races, and all backgrounds, deserve higher wages. Families of all races, and all backgrounds, deserve quality health care and decent retirement savings. Every child in this country deserves an education that lets them dream bigger than the circumstances in which they’re born.

You know, look, in today’s economy, we can’t put up walls around America. We’re not going to round up 11 million people. We’re not going to put technology back in the box. We’re not going to rip away hard-earned rights of women and minorities and Americans with disabilities so that they’re able to more fairly and fully participate in the workplace. These are permanent fixtures in our economy. And rolling them back will not help folks in Elkhart or anyplace else.

And if we’re going to transform our politics so that they’re actually responsive to working families and are actually growing the middle class, then we’ve got to stop pitting working Americans against one another. We’re going to have to come together and choose a vision of America where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same set of rules. And that’s the vision that made progress possible over these last seven years. And that’s what’s going to lead us forward now.

If anyone thinks that speech sounds like something new from Barack Obama, they haven’t been paying attention. It is the same thing he’s been saying since he came on the scene in 2004, ran for office in 2008 and has governed since he was elected (and re-elected). As he said yesterday:

Now, look, I’m the first to admit my presidency hasn’t fixed everything. We’ve had setbacks. We’ve had false starts. We’ve, frankly, been stuck with a Congress recently that’s opposed pretty much everything that we’ve tried to do. But I also know that I’ve spent every single day of my presidency focused on what I can do to grow the middle class and increase jobs, and boost wages, and make sure every kid in America gets the same kind of opportunities Michelle and I did. I know that. I know that communities like Elkhart haven’t been forgotten in my White House. And the results prove that our focus has paid off.

This is – and has always been – President Obama’s answer to the attempts to divide us with fear-mongering about economic anxieties.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.