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Working In These Times

Thursday, Aug 5, 2010, 7:49 am

Can Obama’s ‘Made in America’ Strategy Save Jobs—and Democrats?

BY Art Levine

On Wednesday, President Obama used the platform of the AFL-CIO Executive Council to emphasize reviving American manufacturing and keeping jobs in America as his administration's new economic priority. After having failed to aggressively push for large-scale jobs creation in the face of Washington's deficit mania, Obama has unveiled new economic promises to appeal to the labor constituency he needs for the 2010 and 2012 elections.

He even insisted that his administration would "keep on fighting" for the Employee Free Choice Act—although it's been perfectly obvious to most sentient beings that his administration did virtually nothing to promote one of labor's top legislative priorities. A few progressive bloggers attacked the hypocrisy of the comments, such as Firedoglake's Michael Whitney:

For Obama to even mention the Employee Free Choice Act as anything but a deader-than-dead failure of his administration is an insult to the intelligence of every working person in America. Obama had the opportunity to push through the Employee Free Choice Act between February and April 2009. He let it linger, then let Democrats start sniping at it, and then the ship sailed with Scott Brown's election.

Still, his broader economic message was welcomed by labor, despite the disappointment that labor has periodically expressed over centrist compromises over health reform and inaction on the Employee Free Choice Act.

"The message I want to deliver to our [foreign] competitors—and to those in Washington who've tried to block our progress at every step of the way—is that we are going to rebuild this economy stronger than before, and at the heart of it are going to be three powerful words: Made in America," Obama said to union leaders' applause.

As the AFL-CIO Now blog noted, the president made clear how this upcoming election would be a choice between "polices that encourage job creation here in America or encourage jobs to go elsewhere...The choice is whether we want to go forward or we want to go backwards to the same policies that got us into this mess in the first place."

In truth, the ambitious pro-manufacturing agenda doesn't seem likely to be enough -- even if it managed to overcome GOP opposition and a politically nervous Democratic leadership -- to dramatically reduce the high unemployment and underemployment of roughly 20 percent. Or win over skeptical labor members and liberal activists.

As Leo Hindery Jr. of the New America Foundation observed about this new initiative, it's been promised before by then-candidate Obama:

All the way back in July 2008, then Candidate Obama told the United Steel Workers that, "Change is ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas and giving them to companies that create good paying jobs here in America; it's putting people to work...making the materials we need to rebuild America; it's...creating millions of new jobs - jobs that we want to be good union jobs - and giving our workers the skills to do them."

So there you have it: 24 months after Obama's speech to the Steelworkers and 18 months after his Inauguration, we hear from Mr. [Rahm] Emanuel that "Made in America" and "ending overseas tax breaks" are finally to be the President's upcoming themes for the Fall 2010 Congressional campaigns. And political commentators and pollsters wonder why so many of us on the progressive, pro-worker side of American politics are so frustrated and cynical.

Even so, the scope of proposed congressional action is potentially helpful, but not enough to transform current economic trends. As The Washington Post recapped:

President Obama and congressional Democrats -- out of options for another quick shot of stimulus spending to revive the sluggish economy -- are shifting toward a longer-term strategy that promises to tackle persistently high unemployment by engineering a renaissance in American manufacturing.

That approach, heralded by Obama last week in Detroit and sketched out in a memo to House Democrats as they headed home for the August break, is still evolving and so far focuses primarily on raising taxes on multinational corporations that Democrats accuse of shipping jobs overseas.

The strategy also repackages policies long pursued by the White House -- such as investing in clean energy, roads, bridges and broadband service -- with more than two dozen legislative proposals aimed at developing a plan for promoting domestic manufacturing...

Senior Democrats acknowledge that the strategy emerged after the issue of off-shoring jobs figured prominently in a Pennsylvania special election earlier this year and a recent poll.

Some independent analysts are also skeptical. U.S. manufacturing jobs have been disappearing since 1979, in part because of the heightened productivity of American workers but also because of cheaper labor abroad. During the past decade, the sector lost a third of its workers, falling to 11.7 million last year from 17.3 million people in 1999, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics...

All this comes when union leaders are working hard to overcome potential apathy by some union workers over the Obama administration. As the Washington Independent noted:

The Democrats know that having the unions on board and excited will be crucial to driving good voter turnout for the party during midterms, but they also realize it'll be a bit of a tall order...

Some union officials are walking away from [AFL-CIO President Richard] Trumka's call to stand by the president, though. Many union members disappointed by the "cadillac tax" on generous health benefits that found its way into Obama's health care reform bill. And there has been virtually no movement in Congress on unions' pet issue, the Employee Free Choice Act

But if some labor activists'  ideological purity and anger at the Obama administration trump the fear of a GOP take-over of Congress, then a GOP victory in November and, potentially,  in 2012, could imperil an economic revival and a progressive agenda for years to come.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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