President Obama’s economic relaunch was actually the second one this month from a prominent Democrat, coming a few days after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced an economic empowerment agenda for women. They both said they are hoping for Republican support to turn their ideas into reality. But they both are also well aware that these issues are more likely to become a fine campaign platform for the 2014 elections, if not necessarily a winning one.
The president, speaking in Galesburg, Ill., eight years after his first economic address as a senator, blamed Republicans for “an endless parade of distractions, political posturing, and phony scandals” that he said has caused Washington “to take its eye off the ball.” Not that Obama has consistently kept his eye on that ball, but when he does make proposals, they generally go nowhere.
This political landscape was an explicit underpinning of his speech, in that he more or less pledged to circumvent Congress. “I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way,” Obama said. “Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it. Where I can’t act on my own, I’ll pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents – anybody who can help – and enlist them in our efforts.”
That is not the same as raising the minimum wage (which many conservatives say is bad for business); finding money for universal pre-K (more spending at a time when Republicans are still in slash-the-budget mode); or even offering incentives to companies to hire the long-term unemployed (look for it, maybe, to turn up sometime as a bargaining chip in a larger context). Instead, Obama said he is “challenging CEOs from some of America’s best companies to hire more Americans who’ve got what it takes to fill that job opening, but have been laid off so long no one will give their resume an honest look.” Maybe those CEOs will respond – but if they felt like doing something for the long-term jobless, wouldn’t they already be doing it?
Similarly, Pelosi and other House Democrats are holding regular events pegged to significant dates in women’s history to highlight their push for pay equity, a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, and more widely available child care. “It's every possibility to attract attention, to give hope, to organize,” she told a dozen female reporters at lunch last week. She added, referring to Republicans, “And believe me when I tell you this: We would rather they come up and join us in this rather than our having it as a political weapon.”
But that will likely be the way it works out. Pelosi’s minority is powerless within the majority-rule House, but she is focused on its potential outside Washington. House Democrats are based in 200 districts across the country, a “phenomenal resource” that she says they’ll use to “get a drumbeat going” at the grassroots level. “If you put out word with any one of us talking in any one of these places about these issues, you will be deluged with women coming in to let you hear their story,” she says.
Pelosi’s top goal, she says, is for public sentiment to influence GOP decision- and policy-making. If that doesn’t work – and what are the odds of the business-friendly Republican leadership going for pay equity or paid family leave? – Democrats will have positioned themselves throughout the country as champions of beleaguered voters trying to juggle kids and jobs and scraping by. That can’t hurt when it comes to prodding minorities, women and younger people to go to the polls in a non-presidential year. One headline about a study of the 2010 electorate summarized it this way: Old, white, rich and Republican.
We may not have seen the last of the economic agenda surge from Democrats. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has told National Journal she is at work on a similar package that includes a minimum-wage increase, among other items. She and other Democrats will tell you the best case is that Republicans feel pressure as the midterms draw near and Congress passes something – an infrastructure bill, an immigration overhaul, a minimum-wage increase, a tax incentive here or there – to try to goose the economy.
But if nothing passes, Democrats will not be left empty-handed. Their House and Senate candidates will have a case to make, and Obama may be able to improve his job-approval rating, which could affect the outcome of some races. The bad news for the party is historical patterns. They suggest it would take a miracle – massive turnout and equally massive rejection of the GOP – for Democrats to gain seats, much less control of the House.