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SOTU Shockers: AFL-CIO, Chamber Join Hands, Liberals Win One on Social Security

Art Levine

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With President Obama winning high marks from the public while making the case for increased government investment” in the face of GOP opposition, the political landscape was scrambled further by yesterday’s joint announcement by leaders of the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO backing government spending to promote the nation’s infrastructure. What’s critical about this development, besides its novelty, is that it squeezes the GOP’s leadership between the wishes of their leading corporate donors and biggest-spending lobbyists ($100 million) – and the anti-spending fervor of the Tea Party and their own incendiary rhetoric. 

With the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO standing together to support job creation, we hope that Democrats and Republicans in Congress will also join together to build America’s infrastructure,” said Chamber president Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in what some have called their hell freezes over” statement. Despite bitter disputes with the Chamber over everything from union-busting to health reform to trade (see this barrage of attacks on the AFL-CIO blog), the New Centrism, post-Tuscon vibe seems to have come to two longtime combatants, at least on this one issue.

At the same time, a coalition of progressive groups and labor organizations pushed President Obama into taking a tougher stance defending Social Security than otherwise might have been expected, given that he created a deficit commission that recommended sharp cuts and raising the retirement age. Before the speech, Roger Hickey of Campaign for America’s Future, a leading catalyst in the fight to protect Social Security, told In These Times, We’re trying to convince the White House that President Obama and the Democratic Party shouldn’t commit political suicide over this issue.”

Progressives are also making other strides in this tough, post-November political and fiscal climate. While the campaign to promote the political and economic soundness of defending Social Security was a relatively low-budget initiative – with just $ 1 million budgeted for a radio ad campaign in Washington – it also ginned up nearly one million messages to the White House, Roger Hickey observes, generated in part by Moveon​.org and an array of over 250 progressive groups under the umbrella of the Strengthen Social Security campaign.

What’s especially notable about this campaign is that it didn’t simply hew to whatever centrist, business-leaning line-of-the-week that the White House was promoting in promoting a reform” agenda – as did the progressive coalitions supporting health care and financial reform – but supported an independent agenda that went beyond what the White House seemed willing to do initially. In some ways, it’s politically low-hanging fruit – urging Congress and the White House not to cave on the signature policy issue that has successfully defined Democrats for decades – and is wildly popular with voters. Yet it also marks a coming of age for today’s progressive movement that has learned the hard way that even a charismatic Democratic president they worked hard to elect needs to be pushed much harder than they’ve usually been willing to do. Of course, the fight to preserve Social Security is hardly over, including the ongoing need to push back against a media still portraying Social Security as linked to the deficit (it’s not funded from general revenues) and soon to run out of money.

The president said in his speech:

To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. We must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

As Roger Hickey pointed out in an email blast after the speech:

You did it! The State of the Union speech could have been a disaster. But you helped us push the president in the right direction.

You joined the Campaign for America’s Future to help sound the alarm to President Barack Obama that he must fight for jobs — not Social Security cuts. And he got the message.

We won this round. But the fight isn’t over. And we need your help to keep fighting…

We also told President Obama to concentrate on jobs. And he did, backing public investment and opposing job killing” budget cuts.

Was it good enough? No. The president still left the door open to future Social Security cuts. And his jobs plans are not big enough to get all Americans working.

But now that we have the White House moving in the right direction, let’s keep pushing. We have to take on the conservatives in Congress who call for slashing spending and have no jobs plan. We have to push for a bold jobs agenda.

And that’s where the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO coalition on supporting investment in technology, research and infrastructure comes in. It could help to reframe the debate in Congress about the role of government spending as an engine of economic growth and job creation, even if President Obama’s $50 billion infrastructure plan went nowhere last year after the PR shellacking and smear job the original $786 billion stimulus plan has faced.

A Chamber spokesperson told In These Times that the Chamber supported the original stimulus plan but didn’t take a position on the subsequent $50 billion proposal that died last year. The Chamber, besides spending millions to defeat Democrats, unions and regulations, also supports some forms of government spending to help businesses and create jobs beyond just tax cuts and deregulation — the GOP’s panacea for everything that ails the country.

While accepting those nostrums, the Chamber president, in a speech in mid-January, also called for programs that would:

Rebuild America’s economic foundation — the platform our society runs on. Roads, bridges, rail and mass transit networks, airports, and air transport systems must be modernized. Broadband capacity, power generation, and water supplies must be expanded. We can create jobs, reduce our trade and budget deficits, and increase our own security by developing all forms of alternative, renewable, and traditional energy. We will also commence a new project to outline what our nation must do to create and secure a 21st century global supply chain and logistics system. 

In their joint statement, Trumka and Donohue declared:

America’s working families and business community stand united in applauding President Obama’s call to create jobs and grow our economy through investment in our nation’s infrastructure.

Whether it is building roads, bridges, high-speed broadband, energy systems and schools, these projects not only create jobs and demand for businesses, they are an investment in building the modern infrastructure our country needs to compete in a global economy. 

If Congress responds to this unusual joint call in a political climate shaped by deficit-mania and cowed by Tea Party extremism, then hell may, if not freeze over, indeed start cooling.

UPDATE: I talked about Obama’s centrism and the role of progressives before the State of the Union seech with journalist Jonathan Rowe, now a contributor to the important new policy website Remapping Debate, on his talk show on KWMR, West Marin’s community radio station (about five minutes in after music and lead-ins).

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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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