The Magazine

The Real Main Street Agenda

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Ladies and gentlemen, prepare for battle! The 2012 campaign is shaping up to be a struggle over which candidate best represents the interests and aspirations of the American middle class. Unable to run on his record, President Obama wants to recast the election as a choice between stolid defender of middle-class values and radical pawn of selfish billionaires. We’ll let you figure out who’s who.

Photo of a typical small town Main Street

AP Photo / Jim Mone

So far, though, only one side is on the warpath. Since September, when he unveiled his jobs bill before a joint session of Congress, the president has attacked Republicans for sacrificing the middle class on the altar of the rich. The jobs bill may not have gone anywhere, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to shift blame for Obama’s failures onto the Republicans in Congress.

The moneyed interest and its conservative henchmen, Obama is suggesting, are responsible for America’s continued economic and political doldrums. Forget about those two years when Democrats controlled the elected branches of government, during which time Congress passed and the president signed into law bills that continued the bailouts, spent a trillion dollars on stimulus, and overhauled the health care and financial systems. History actually began on January 5, 2011, when the 112th Congress was sworn into office.

The president has developed this theme throughout his recent Teddy Roosevelt revival tour. He mentioned the “middle class” no fewer than 21 times during his hyped address at Osawatomie, Kansas, in early December. Last week’s insipid manuevering over the payroll tax cut was designed to make House Republicans look as though they were eager to raise taxes on 160 million people. The president’s defense of public- and private-sector labor unions—if the UAW can still be considered a private-sector union—conflates the jobs, salaries, and health and retirement benefits of 12 percent of the workforce with the “middle class,” broadly defined.

What have Republicans said in response? Well, not much. With the exception of Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, not enough spokesmen for conservatism have stated the obvious: President Obama’s agenda, in practically every aspect, has been and continues to be either irrelevant or inimical to the future of bourgeois America.

A thriving middle class depends on a thriving economy. Yet Obama has been unable to restart the American jobs machine. Trillions in annual deficits, historically low interest rates, and short-term gimmicks like Cash for Clunkers have given us an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent in November 2011, still higher than when the president was inaugurated. Obama’s response to these dismal numbers is to say that things could’ve been worse. But how does that help the 13 million Americans out of work and stuck with Obama’s tab?

Middle-class incomes have fared poorly over the last decade not only because of the recession, but because increases in health premiums have soaked up wage growth. In 2007 and 2008, then-candidate Obama pledged time and again that if elected he would reduce premiums by $2,500 per year. Obamacare was sold as an exercise in cost-containment. But the administration’s own actuary says the Affordable Care Act will increase, not decrease, health care spending by hundreds of billions of dollars. And premiums have gone up, not down, by more than $2,000 since Obama has been president.

If you think the middle class is hurting now, wait until it has to cough up the money for $62 trillion in unfunded entitlement obligations. Here, too, the president has failed to address the problem. Whether it’s the Bowles-Simpson Commission, the Rivlin-Domenici Commission, or Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden’s plan for Medicare reform, Obama has passed on bipartisan opportunities to put America’s finances on sustainable ground. He remains fixated on increasing taxes on the wealthy, a controversial position among Republicans and some Democrats and a policy that will do next to nothing to close the budget gap.

A real middle-class agenda would break from the Obama administration’s failed economic strategy. The tax code would be reformed by ending handouts and special favors and by lessening the burden on working families through permanently lower payroll taxes and a generous child credit. Jobs would surge thanks to an energy sector liberated from the green lobby. Obamacare would be repealed and replaced with legislation that emphasizes consumer choice and competition in health care, increasing productivity and lowering costs. Medicare and Medicaid would be tamed before their runaway spending ends in a fiscal crisis.

These measures wouldn’t just help the middle class. They’d help every American. Which is one more reason the coming fight is so important.

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