“A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” So said President Obama in his recent speech on increasing economic inequality, which he said “challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.”
Perhaps one might agree with Paul Krugman that it’s a hopeful sign, with Obama “finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008.” But what about the next thing Krugman said, on his column’s final sentence: “This is going to change the discourse — and, eventually, I believe, actual policy”?
If Obama were really serious, he could have announced significant policy changes as part of that speech — and even woven them into its very texture. True, congressional gridlock remains a dominant factor in Washington today, but there are things Obama can do on his own, as well as ways that he can seek to reshape political discourse over the long haul. By taking decisive action on the former, he could have given a lot more weight to the latter, particularly since he was speaking a week before the new budget deal was announced — an advantage he has already squandered. Had he really been serious, here are four dramatic actions Obama could have taken to begin translating his words into deeds:
1. Ensure a living wage for federal contract workers: In May, the think tank Demos released a report, “Underwriting Bad Jobs: How Our Tax Dollars Are Funding Low-Wage Work and Fueling Inequality.” It estimated that “nearly two million private sector employees working on behalf of America earn wages too low to support a family, making $12 or less per hour. This is more than the number of low-wage workers at Walmart and McDonalds combined.” It was an admittedly incomplete figure, not including subsidies for agribusiness giants employing “more than a million farm workers,” or Department of Education grants funding “low-wage assistant teachers, bus monitors and cooks in Head Start and other programs,” among other programs.
But it was clearly a good place to start, as was recognized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. On July 3, citing the Demos report, CPC co-chairs Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and 15 other representatives wrote a letter calling on Obama to take immediate action via a working group of federal agencies. On Sept. 25, they sent a follow-up letter with 50 signatories urging Obama to “issue an executive order to raise wage standards, safeguard the legal rights and safety and provide labor stability for the low-wage workers on whom these federal agencies rely to fulfill their mission.” Yet, the same day Obama gave his inequality speech, Salon’s Josh Eidelson reported that Obama’s White House has offered “no response” to the letter. Not a single word. The speech would have been the ideal place to break that silence.