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Amy Dean writes on Talking Union

While I admired so much of what I heard from the President last night; after the applause dies away, we have to face the next difficult stage of this national conversation.  It’s the kind of conversation that gets to the tough decisions and real problems only alluded to last night.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama explained that in the past two years we have faced "the worst recession most of us have ever known."  Historians and economists might differ in how they compare the recent economic crisis to the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Obama’s descriptions of our economic difficulties have a political effect. They lead people to liken him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who dealt with the last century’s most profound economic downturn.

Yet, as the State of the Union made clear, there is a critical difference between the two presidents.

While both have similarly spoken of the gravity of unemployment and economic stagnation, we need to hear next if President Obama will follow FDR’s lead in highlighting the institutions that can bring about middle class prosperity in America. We need to know how the broad vision President Obama outlined last night will become a concrete plan to strengthen the government’s role in creating greater fairness in our economy.

No doubt, the American economy today is radically different from what it was when FDR sat in the White House. As President Obama noted, we are now part of a global economy that is not insulated by national boundaries. Innovation and quickness at getting new ideas and products into the market drive corporate success – and these things necessitate more nimble corporate and workforce structures.

While we acknowledge these changes, the fact that the economy has transformed does not mean that our core values are any different than in the past. We can and should still aspire to be a country with a robust middle class, where prosperity is widely shared, quality jobs are ample, and a dignified living is within reach of all those who work for such opportunities.

President Obama correctly insisted that we cannot measure economic progress merely by corporate profits. He said, "We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children."

What we need to hear next is the same call for the empowerment of workers that FDR made when he encouraged them to join unions.  We need to hear President Obama address how he will support employees trying to improve conditions in today’s workplaces. We need to hear about government’s role in advocating for more robust employees’ rights and promoting more widespread economic fairness. The fact that the economy has changed does not mean that the institutions that created broad prosperity and built the American middle class in the wake of the Great Depression are irrelevant. They simply must take new forms.

We need to know how President Obama will reinvigorate those institutions. Because we know from history that employees coming together in their workplaces is one of the few ways that people can collectively increase their standard of living. And we know from the Clinton years that economic growth alone does not result in a more equitable distribution of wealth. To the contrary, in recent decades, CEO salaries have skyrocketed but gains in productivity have failed to translate into corresponding increases in the wages of ordinary employees.

Reversing this unacceptable trend will require moving the national conversation to the next level from where President Obama’s State of the Union address left off. With each major plank of the platform the president discussed, there was an urgent need to address how our collective efforts would result in a more equitable economy.

Trade was a significant theme in the president’s address, and there is no doubt that we need trade if the American economy is to thrive. Yet, we must ask, when will we have the conversation about how to best do trade so that we achieve a dual bottom line of both competitiveness and fairness?

Education is undoubtedly essential for our future economic wellbeing. But when will we talk about the role of parents’ organizations, teachers associations, and neighborhood movements that can push for real educational reform and demand that improvements are not contained within affluent communities, but instead benefit students in any zip code.

Finally, it is right that the president is concerned about fiscal responsibility. His call for a real conversation about the appropriate role of government in our society should be applauded. We cannot talk about deficit reduction without being explicit about both what we are willing to cut and what we are willing to go into debt for as a nation—whether that might be preserving Social Security during economically difficult times or making sure that essential public services are not undermined.

The president’s address put forward bold ideas on things like trade, entrepreneurism, education, and deficit reduction. But what we need to hear next is how greater competitiveness will translate into greater fairness in our country and how the government can work proactively to protect the common good. Everyone who is concerned with creating an American economy that serves all of its citizens has a demanding task ahead.

We heard from the president an inspired and clear vision for America’s future.  But ultimately, we must realize that, there is a limit to the role for presidents to play in advancing a progressive social and economic agenda. Presidents set the tone of national discussion. But we should never lull ourselves into believing that the president alone will deliver the things we really need to build a fairer economy. Most of this agenda will be delivered only if, and only when, we have a social movement that pushes forward this national debate.

— Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. She can be reached via the Web site:

Originally posted to Talking Union on Wed Jan 26, 2011 at 10:41 AM PST.

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