Never mind yellow-ribbon displays in support of our troops. Want to really show off your patriotism? Pay taxes to fund health care for poor kids and unemployment insurance for laid off workers. That was President Obama’s refreshing message on government spending yesterday.
“We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us,” Obama said, describing social safety net programs as part of a bedrock American belief that “we are all connected.” “We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.”
It was nice to hear the president offer a values-driven defense of government—and to hear an unequivocal rejection of the Republican plan to pay for millionaire tax cuts by ending the federal commitment to Medicare and Medicaid. Obama even implied Rep. Paul Ryan’s deficit-reduction plan is cowardly, because it picks on people who don’t have lobbyists.
“We do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in,” he said of Ryan’s budget. “And as long as I’m president, we won’t.”
All of this is likely great politics. Obama has cast the social compact as the very cause of American exceptionalism, as the root of our triumphant national identity.
But there’s another way to look at it, one that I’m free to articulate because I’m not running for office. Namely, that the inverse is true: What’s too often been exceptional about America is the distance between its professed ideal of shared prosperity and the reality of its winner-take-all, wealth-concentrating economy.
Without violent exploitation, our triumphant national narrative would have never begun—see under, slave economy. America created a white middle class following the second World War, using federally backed home loans and federally backed college education and union-bargained manufacturing jobs. But people of color were barred from participating fairly in that economy, too, and 19th century poverty continued to pass from one generation to the next.
So radical reformers in the 1960s built the Great Society, an effort to finally live up to the American ideal of equal opportunity, to make real the promise that you begin and finish life with a clean slate. Lyndon Johnson advanced more than 100 proposals to reshape American economic life in just two congressional sessions (kinda puts the supposedly overloaded legislative calendar of the Obama years in perspective) to create the country we live in today.
Those congresses created a federal commitment to supporting local public education. They opened up a range of programs to assist everyone in paying for college, not just white G.I.s. They created bilingual education for Spanish-speaking students and Head Start so poor preschoolers (of all colors) could get the same early-education advantage as (white) rich ones. They created food stamps and school breakfasts, federal support for arts education and scientific research, national parks that were accessible to urban centers and community service programs. Yes, they even created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s all before you get to Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, raised Social Security benefits and fair housing rules.
All of these were explicit efforts to close the foundational gap between America’s professed ideals and the reality of its rigged, whites-only economy. Here’s what Johnson said in June 1965, in his not-famous-enough speech about the Great Society to a graduating class of Howard University. It bears quoting at length:
Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society—to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.
But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.
This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.
And you know what? When public policy explicitly sought to create equity, it started to work. These programs have never been perfectly built, and certainly not perfectly implemented. They have much work left to do. But they have undeniably changed America.
A 1999 Washington Monthly essay by Joseph Califano, Jr. is required reading for understanding the current deficit debate. In it, he spells out the remarkable changes Johnson’s policies brought about in American economic life, from health care to education to the environment. When my father finished college in 1967, just 4 percent of black people over the age of 25 had done so as well; by 2007, nearly one in five had. In 1960, fewer than a million African Americans had jobs that economists define as putting them in the middle class; by the century’s close, nearly seven million black workers had such jobs. The national poverty rate dropped from more than 22 percent in 1963 to just under 13 percent in 1970—where it remained until 2009, when the conservative counter-revolution finally bore fruit in record-setting poverty numbers.
And this is where I challenge Obama’s otherwise excellent re-framing of the budget debate yesterday. The president, as he often does, asserted today’s deficit dispute is not necessarily polar, that there’s plenty of room for compromise. He could not be more wrong.
The reality is that the conservative movement has spent my lifetime trying to undo Johnson’s Great Society in every way. They have spent years hammering away at the very idea that we have a shared responsibility and, instead, building the caricature of irresponsible, lazy and often criminal poor people of color living off the public dime. Democrats have helped them by abandoning entirely the equity framework Johnson so artfully articulated.
Today’s deficit battle is the endgame in this 30-plus year counter-revolution. Reagan Republicans established the idea of the greedy poor. Bush Republicans forced a fiscal crisis by starving government of revenue and wreaking internal havoc on its systems, such that it failed citizens when they most needed it. And now, tea party Republicans move in to finally dismantle the Great Society programs themselves.
The politics of this fight, both short term and long term, will require much creative maneuvering. And Obama’s effort to again frame government spending as part of the American Dream is deft. “The America I know is generous and compassionate,” he declared. “It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share.”
But make no mistake: This is an all-or-none policy war for the country’s future. Whatever the messaging, everybody from the White House to grassroots poverty activists need to be ready to truly stand at the line Obama has rhetorically drawn. The president has compromised his way through the past two years. That’s either served him well or proven his undoing, depending on who you ask. On this one, however, there’s no wiggle room. Either he fights, or we all lose.