The first half of President Obama's address in Galesburg, Ill., on Wednesday sounded like a victory speech. "As a country, we've recovered faster and gone further than most other advanced nations in the world," the president said, which is of course pretty faint praise (take that, Europe). Notably, he didn't mention the word "Detroit." But the real purpose of the speech was to kick off a new focus on what the federal government can be doing to make the economic recovery stronger, faster, more productive. "We're not there yet," the president said.
Obama pointed to the imbalanced income gains, which have benefited the wealthy much more than the middle-class and poor. "This growing inequality isn't just morally wrong; it's bad economics ... that's why reversing these trends must be Washington's highest priority." And he laid out what he called the "cornerstones" for what it "means to be middle-class in America:"
Job security, with good wages and durable industries. A good education. A home to call your own. Affordable health care when you get sick. A secure retirement even if you're not rich. Reducing poverty and inequality. Growing prosperity and opportunity.
All reasonable goals! But a quick look at how Congress has been acting recently shows just how unlikely they are to be accomplished.
Let's start with job security and wages. In his State of the Union address this year, the president proposed increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9, which would then be indexed to inflation. That was in February. In March, a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., was voted down by every House Republican. There's been no real promising movement on the wage since then. "It's time for the minimum wage to go up!" Obama said Wednesday. It's been four years—to the day—since the federal minimum wage has been changed.
OK, how about education? Just this week, National Journal's Michael Catalini reported that a deal on student loans may not pass the Senate with a Democratic majority due to a battle over amendments. A student-loan deal, in some form, is still likely to move through Congress at some point. But student-loan debt is still a major problem. Last week, the House did approve a rewrite of No Child Left Behind. But no Democrats voted for that bill, which would move more oversight of education from the federal government to the states. Obama has said he would veto it. It's a nonstarter in the Senate.
Health care? You likely already know this story. Last week, the House voted to delay the employer and individual mandates that are part of Obamacare. And Republicans are already planning on holding up the law in the major fiscal fights over government funding and the debt limit that are coming this fall. Any serious rollback of the Affordable Care Act is seriously unlikely, however, with Democrats controlling the White House and Senate. But just carrying out the implementation of that law is going to keep being a big headache for the president.
Lastly, economic opportunity and mobility? One look at David Leonhardt's New York Times story from Monday on how much location matters to economic mobility shows just how tricky the situation currently is in the United States, and how hard it would be to fix it.
Obama knows that gridlock exists. He said in his speech Wednesday that "over the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse." At one point, he even acknowledged reporters who think this platform won't happen. He addressed Congress specifically at one point:
I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. Now it's time for you to lay out yours. If you're willing to work with me to strengthen American manufacturing and rebuild this country's infrastructure, let's go. If you have better ideas to bring down the cost of college for working families, let's hear them. If you think you have a better plan for making sure every American has the security of quality, affordable health care, stop taking meaningless repeal votes and share your concrete ideas with the country.... If you are serious about a balanced, long-term fiscal plan that replaces the mindless cuts currently in place, or tax reform that closes corporate loopholes and gives working families a better deal, I'm ready to work – but know that I will not accept deals that don't meet the basic tests of strengthening the prospects of hard-working families. This is the agenda we have to be working on.
In any case, the president probably also knows that the proposals and themes that he began to lay out on Wednesday are likely not going to become realized. It's certainly not the first time he's pushed a campaign to boost the recovery. It's not even the first time he's given such a speech in Galesburg. But with the economy still nowhere near full capacity, there is plenty of reason to acknowledge the problem. And not everyone has to be so cynical.