Tonight’s much anticipated address by President Barack Obama, almost four weeks into the New Year, is a huge test for our Commander-in-Chief. However, unlike last year, the rub isn’t his ability to withstand peanut gallery heckling (House Republican Joseph Wilson’s famous “You lie!” sneer). Rather, a large section of the American public, myself included, is looking to assess Obama’s ability to keep it real – to look that camera straight in the eye and drop all the b.s. about the nation’s “exceptionalism” and “competitive advantage.” We need the President, struggling with staff overturn and the formulation of an agenda for the final two years of his term, to level with his constituents, to give voice to the hard truths that so many of us have experienced for too long.
We are a nation at a crossroads. Despite the amassing of record corporate profits during the last two years, unemployment numbers remain puzzlingly and consistently high. State governments continue to slide into insolvency, and once stable jobs in the public sector (teachers, first responders, etc) are vanishing in unprecedented droves. We don’t need a cheerleader to sell us the “everything’s looking up!” routine. Things are definitely on the upswing for CEOs, for the NYSE, but not for us. We want to know why this happened and we don’t want to hear it from Timothy Geithner. We deserve to know how to fix our structural weaknesses so we never find ourselves victimized by them again, and to experience comfort in the form of a solid plan of action. It’s not permissible to kick the can down the curb anymore, leaving the hard decisions to future administrations. It’s not fine to play the role of the soothing parent. We are adults and we know we’re hurt. I think Mr. Obama’s poll numbers ought to be the first hint that we don’t believe the “measurable growth” fairy tale.
There is still too much rightful insecurity on Main Street. Millions have been out of work for periods of a year or longer. Those of us who have been lucky enough to secure new employment often find it to be of the contract or temporary kind, transient and without livable wages and benefits. We have no idea if the health care overhaul passed last summer to such tremendous fanfare and Tea Party howling will be overturned before the close of 2011. This is not an exercise in political gamesmanship. There are real stakes involved. It’s hard to formulate a five month plan, let alone a five year one, immersed in so much uncertainty.
I am certainly no defeatist. There is a time and place in tonight’s address for a celebration of our progress, to acknowledge how far we’ve come from the days of late 2008 when it seemed entirely possible that American economic and political relevancy could go the way of the Edsel. However, keep that sort of self-congratulation to a minimum. This is the first generation to fare more poorly than the previous in terms of wage growth, home ownership and educational opportunity. Let’s talk about how we arrived here, and what we’re going to do in the next 24 months to help the once-thriving middle class get back on the road to dignity and prosperity.