A mandate to help the middle class
The focus in Washington has now shifted to the fiscal cliff, with the White House and Congress, particularly the House Republicans, staking out negotiating positions on the expiring Bush tax cuts and the looming budget sequester.
The White House’s firm opening salvo—and House Speaker John Boehner’s grudging admission that he is “open” to a budget deal that contains new revenue—have been much discussed. With six in 10 Americans expressing support for higher taxes in exit polls on Nov. 6, President Barack Obama’s position is a strong one.
It’s important to remember, however, that the public came out on Election Day in support of more than Obama’s tax stance. Exit polls and public-opinion surveys show that the president’s mandate goes far beyond taxes and the fiscal cliff.
The president pointed this out at his first post-election press conference. “I’ve got a mandate,” Obama said, “to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class.”
Obama didn’t win just because of demographics: He won on the economy. He won because the electorate understood that a vote for Obama was a vote for policies that would help the middle class and the working poor. Three-quarters of voters said the president’s policies favored these groups, while 53 percent said GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s policies favored the rich.
Voters knew they could trust the president to preserve and strengthen the social safety net — including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. They knew they could count on the president to make critical investments in education, infrastructure and scientific research that can expand the economy for everyone instead of just lining the coffers of the wealthiest few.
These protections and investments aren’t “gifts” to particular voting blocs. They are the foundation of our international economic competitiveness and the tangible representation of our government’s moral obligation to serve the needs of all Americans.
But the president also won because, after almost three decades of experimentation with trickle-down economics, the public has joined the majority of leading economists in recognizing that a strong middle class, not ever more generous benefits for the wealthy, as the true engine of economic growth.
To be sure, changing demographics mattered. But demographics alone don’t tell the whole story.
We must recognize that Obama’s message of “middle-out, not top-down” growth was more than clever rhetoric. A “middle-out” economy more accurately describes the desires and beliefs of the American people – who want their children to benefit from the same access to high-quality education and public services they had. They know the economy will be stronger as a result.
Consider, “middle-out” economic policies recognize that our most innovative and successful entrepreneurs and inventers, our Steve Jobses and Sergey Brins, are most likely to come from the ranks of an educated and robust middle class.
This also reflects the experience of today’s middle-class workers – who have seen their take-home pay stagnate even as income inequality reaches record highs. They have seen their purchasing power decline as costs for services like health care and higher education skyrocket, and their political power diminish everywhere but the ballot box, as Washington is overtaken by moneyed special interests.
Yes, the GOP still controls the House of Representatives. It holds the House even though Democratic House candidates won more votes than their Republican counterparts, 56 million to 55 million nationally, according to Associated Press estimates. But maintaining control because of population shifts and aggressive gerrymandering by Republican friendly state legislatures does not a mandate make.
This isn’t to say that the public will unflinchingly support every Obama administration initiative in the second term, or that congressional Republicans won’t have their priorities reflected in an ultimate “grand bargain” on the deficit.
Obama and the Democratic leaders come to the negotiating table understanding that “compromise” means something different from “acquiescence,” and will no doubt negotiate in good faith.
But the programs that help and expand the middle class – policies that all politicians pay at least lip service to, like building a strong, sustainable physical infrastructure and ensuring that all children, regardless of where or when or to whom they are born, have equal access to a good education—should not require compromise. They should not entail painful trade-offs.
The president should pursue this middle-class agenda with conviction – with all the political strength granted to him by the American people on Nov. 6. And the GOP must recognize that an economy that invests in its middle class and grows from the middle out is good for all Americans, even the wealthiest.
After all, it’s what the public voted for.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama during his first post-election news conference at the White House in Washington November 14, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque