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Working In These Times

Thursday, Aug 26, 2010, 1:02 pm

Beyond Messaging: Obama’s Path to Jump Starting The Economy Without Congress

BY Art Levine

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U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the economy at the White House on August 19, 2010. Obama urged Congress to pass a bill aimed at helping small businesses.   (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

The rising jobless claims and skidding home sales make the Democrats' selling job this November even tougher. But, cowed by deficit hawks, neither the Obama administration nor Congress has shown an appetite for passing the sort of large-scale job creation packages that could make a difference in the ongoing joblessness crisis.

As the Washington Post observed this week, "A rapidly weakening economy threatens to undermine President Obama's assertion that he has set the nation on a path to prosperity and, with barely two months until congressional midterm elections, Democrats find themselves with few options for reviving the faltering recovery. "

But the American Prospect and the progressive policy center Demos released a special report this week, to be featured in the magazine's next issue, that could offer some short-term and long-term help by using the power of government agencies and contracts. These under-used strategies could be put into effect without needing to thread the needle of centrist Democrats and obstructionist Republicans in the Senate.

As Robert Kuttner points out in the lead essay to this report, "The Case for Presidential Action," that also features In These Times writer David Moberg, "The U.S. government spends half a trillion dollars a year to buy goods and services from the private sector. Federal procurement, directly or indirectly, influences about one job in four in the entire economy. And most most large national companies do business with the government," including service and manufacturing companies that pay their workers relatively low wages, thwart unions and deny benefits.

During a conference call this week on the report (hat tip to Campus Progress), experts pointed out:

It seems Congress has given the administration the power to place conditions on those contracts--and the courts have backed them up. Ann O'Leary, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP) senior fellow, notes that "This authority has been used by many presidents for many years."

If these aggressive enforcement and standards-raising actions were combined with effective messaging to scare the hell out of progressives and centrists over the prospect of a GOP and John Boehner take-over, it could conceivably make a difference -- although time is running out before November.

In his article, "Sweatshop Army: Why does the Pentagon use low-road companies to feed and clothe out troops?," David Moberg points to the Wornick Company of Cleveland that pays its mostly immigrant work force less than $10 an hour, making it impossible for them to afford the company's minimum health care plan. "Unfortunately," Moberg says, "all too often the work on military contracts is ill-paid and abusive, just as it as at Wornick, and not an expression of government's stated social policy, such as the 1935 Wagner Act's commitment to encourage collective bargaining."

But more than just raising those contract workers' pay and benefits could make a difference. As Demos summarized the authors and their key reform points:

  • Harold Meyerson on the misclassification of regular workers as temporary or contract employees, and the potential impact of a high-profile and systematic enforcement effort targeted at the large companies that employee them.
  • David Moberg on Pentagon contractors that are notorious low-wage employers, and why there is a national security case for government to set and enforce labor standards in defense contracting. This piece looks specifically at the principal contractors producing MREs and military uniforms.
  • David Bensman, Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relationships at Rutgers University, on federal reclassification of transportation workers and reforming US ports by modernizing safety systems and requiring trucker certification.
  • Steve Franklin on how the Department of Agriculture, which spends upwards of800 million on produce for the school lunch program, can extend bargaining rights to farm workers and sponsor a bill of rights that includes access to sanitary facilities, clean water, and decent housing.
  • Jan Breidenbach on making sure that government-sponsored green housing jobs, which includes the installation of solar panels and retrofitting homes, are high-wage jobs.
  • And others on paying childcare workers a decent wage, insisting on high- quality manufacturing jobs, and the broad social and economic benefits of a high-wage workforce

As a St. Petersburg Times columnist observes:

What can be done to undo the damage without legislative action, since Republicans will oppose anything proworker? Kuttner suggests that the most consequential immediate action Obama could take is to start using government's buying power to reward good labor practices. It must be big-time, governmentwide, and high-profile.

One in every four jobs in the economy is influenced by federal procurement, whether it's foodstuffs for the military or Medicaid payments to nursing homes. Jobs in these industries could be transformed tomorrow if contracts were awarded only to employers who paid living wages, provided benefits, respected labor laws and didn't interfere with unionizing.

As Congress fights over tax breaks for millionaires, the administration could be changing the economic prospects of millions of low-skilled workers. Boosting pay and working conditions for, say, nursing home workers under new Medicaid rules could provide real hope to working poor parents.

Yet in the political battles in the run up to the November, the upset victories of some Tea Party candidates in the GOP primaries are adding to the fears of some in the Democratic Party that a mobilized conservative base could trump Democratic arguments that the economy would be worse under the GOP.

As Politico reports:

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover -- or that anything resembling the White House's promise of a "recovery summer" is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe -- such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 -- are in real trouble.

But some progressives and Democrats are hoping that a more effective message -- focusing in part on the consequences of Rep. John Boehner becoming Speaker of the House -- might help mobilize voters to resist the upsurge in conservative-driven anger and keep enough Democrats in office. As Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent notes:

There's a reason the White House and Dems are throwing everything they have at John Boehner's speech attacking Obama's economic policies: Dems and White House advisers know they must not allow Boehner and the GOP to achieve a clean relaunch of their party and their ideas heading into the midterms.

The big underlying fight right now is over whether Republicans will succeed in rebranding themselves, achieving separation from Bush and the party that ran Congress before the Dem takeover, or whether Dems will successfully convince the electorate that a vote for the GOP is a vote for the party that brought our economy to the edge of doom.

So the White House is circulating a new set of talking points instructing Dems on the Hill and outside allies to reiterate these ideas:

"In a speech in Cleveland [this week], House Minority Leader John Boehner laid out Congressional Republicans' economic dream. Their prescription for the future = the same policies that led to the worst recession since the Great Depression. They want more tax breaks for the rich, less oversight of Wall Street, and a tougher burden for middle-class families...

"Representative Boehner is ignoring his party's own record, and he's hoping that American families will, too. In the eight years before the Obama Administration took office, the Republican Leadership took the record surplus and turned it into a record $1.3 trillion deficit. Their irresponsible policies helped to create the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, resulting in 22 months straight of job losses across America..."

Yet faced with today's grim economic numbers, what can Democrats do now to save Congress? A progressive writer at Daily Kos, writing under the name Meteor Blades, has some sound suggestions worth considering:

To effectively put the Republicans on the defensive, the administration needs more than a message of the-economy-would-be-a-whole-lot-worse if-these-guys-had-been-in-power, even though that assessment is absolutely true.

To this end, combined with a thorough thrashing of the GOP for its devil-take-the-hindmost policies, shortly after Labor Day, the administration should present basic elements of a new economic program for the next two years. It should be a program emphasizing our acute emergency, of course. But it should also lay the foundation for resolving some of the chronic problems that helped generate the emergency. That means, as so many critics have said, new approaches to trade, industrial policy, off-shoring, wage stagnation and arbitrage, and regulation. It should also look even deeper, how to deal with people's needs for economic security in a world in which automation and other productivity-enhancing changes make the old job paradigm obsolete.

No way, obviously, can reforms in all  those areas be achieved in a mere two years, but a start can be made, a direction laid out. Such an economic program ought also to boast one big project, not just a flashy eye-catcher, but something practical, job-generating and an investment in the future. Replacing all [note: the blogger's politically unrealistic idea, not mine] our coal plants with clean-energy sources over a decade would be one possible choice with multiple benefits. But there are others.

In the immediate future, these two messages could reinvigorate voters whose enthusiasm for keeping the Party of No out of office has waned during the past few months. Together, they would provide inspiring talking points to activists in the phone-bank and door-to-door trenches for their use in persuading Americans that staying at home, or choosing Republican candidates, will worsen the economic situation. But a far-sighted economic program must ultimately be about something far more important than merely winning an election.

Yet given the cautionary tone and policies of the administration so far, even in the face of a continuing economic crisis and looming political disaster, it's not at all clear such aggressive steps will be taken.

UPDATE: There's mounting evidence, according to the Congressional Budget Office, that President Obama's stimulus package has had a positive impact on saving and creating millions of jobs. But it's also transforming the economy, as a new Time magazine article highlights (hat tip to the Daily Beast)—but that reality hasn't been translated into effective political salesmanship yet.

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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