A slight mid-March drizzle began outside Cooper Union near the East Village section of Manhattan where inside Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was delivering his speech on “Renewing the American Economy.” It was an invitation-only event, mainly to bolster his war chest that was already bulging with donations from millions of supporters, many of them forking over the requested $25.
When Obama emerged from the building escorted by campaign advisers and a phalanx of secret servicemen, a sizable press corps and a gaggle of spectators beckoned to him, but he merely waved, folded his lanky body into a black minivan and zoomed toward the next appointment. Only the best photographers were able to capture more than a blur of the candidate. Those with questions put away their notebooks, with only raindrops to record the moment.
What Obama left behind, inside the auditorium where Abe Lincoln once spoke and for the nation to mull, was an economic plan that had in many ways been introduced in parts on several other occasions, at rallies, press conferences debates and private meetings. Portions of it were outlined at a small gathering of prominent Black New Yorkers weeks before his Cooper Union date. At that gathering, they bombarded him with questions, asking him to provide in detail exactly what he meant by “change,” which has been the mantra of his campaign.
“There is no doubt that the economy has shifted and some of that shift is permanent,” Obama told one questioner who was concerned about the minimum wage and the working poor. “And we are not going to get all the manufacturing jobs back that have shifted overseas. But we’ve lost more jobs to automation than outsourcing. You go into a factory these days and it’s spanking clean and the robots are doing the work. There are a couple of people in a computer room. We don’t have bank tellers anymore. People just go to ATMs.”
Some of these transitions, Obama continued, are inevitable. “But what we can do is to continually train people for the new jobs that are being created,” he said. “And to make sure these jobs, even if they are more service oriented, pay.”
This interview was conducted long before Obama withstood the onslaught by Sen. Hillary Clinton and Super Tuesday and before a string of primary and caucus victories that have given him a lead in pledged delegates, the popular vote and shrinkage of Clinton’s lead in super delegates. Despite a lead in these vital categories and recent cries for Clinton to end her campaign, Obama has not altered his game plan, nor has he replaced a single plank in his economic platform. And much of what he told the small group of New Yorkers privately was repeated publicly at Cooper Union and with even greater fervor.
“Our economy was undergoing a fundamental shift, carried along by the swift currents of technological change and globalization,” Obama told the crowd at Cooper Union, elaborating on a familiar topic and recalling recent economic history. “For the sake of our common prosperity, we needed to adapt to keep markets competitive and fair. Unfortunately, instead of establishing a twenty-first century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one, aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight. In doing so, we encouraged a winner-take-all, anything-goes environment that helped foster devastating dislocations in our economy. Deregulation of the telecommunications sector, for example, fostered competition but also contributed to massive overinvestment.”
Obama voiced a strong promise to reward work and make retirement secure, telling the audience that he will provide an income-tax credit of up to $1,000 for a working family and eliminate income taxes altogether for any retiree bringing in less than $50,000 per year. He had made similar promises earlier to that coterie of New Yorkers when he addressed the issue of the working poor. “I want the minimum wage to be a living wage,” he answered to another query. “And I’m the co-sponsor of legislation to do it. I want to expand the income-tax credit so that if you are working you are not poor. My attitude is there shouldn’t be such a thing as the working poor.”
Despite his passion for the working poor, only recently has Obama begun to show a decisive cut into Clinton’s appeal to white blue-collar workers. That improvement may now be in jeopardy in the fallout from his remarks about the mood of that segment of the population over the economy and Washington’s failure to help them. Obama, speaking at a private gathering in San Francisco in April, said, “It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Some predicted the comment, coming two weeks before the Pennsylvania primaries, would hurt him in parts of the state where his remarks would be interpreted as elitist and “out of touch,” as his opponent has charged. Clinton won Pennsylvania by a 10-point margin and, as in Ohio, white blue-collar workers were pivotal in her victory.
There wasn’t time for Obama to expound on many economic issues with the small group of New Yorkers, but his contempt for the Bush administration and the way it has devastated the economy was clearly on his mind and it surfaced with equal vigor at Cooper Union. “When subprime mortgage lending took a reckless and unsustainable turn, a patchwork of regulators were unable or unwilling to protect the American people,” he blasted. “Now the policies of the Bush administration threw the economy further out of balance. Tax cuts without end for the wealthiest Americans, and a trillion-dollar war in Iraq that didn’t need to be fought, and paid for with deficit spending and borrowing from foreign creditors like China.”
During his speech at Cooper Union, Obama mentioned only a few proposals with actual dollar figures to be allocated to various programs, though he did specify “a $10-billion foreclosure prevention fund that would help [homeowners] sell a home that is beyond their means or modify their loan to avoid foreclosure or bankruptcy.” Moreover, he said he was proposing a “10-percent mortgage-interest tax credit that will allow homeowners who don’t itemize their taxes to access incentives for homeownership. And to expand homeownership, we must do more to help communities turn abandoned properties into affordable housing. The government can’t do this alone, nor should it.”
At the close of his speech — and nothing was said about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the controversy he had generated with his harsh indictment of America — Obama said, “We have as our inheritance the greatest economy the world has ever known. We have the responsibility to continue the work that began on that spring day over two centuries ago right here in Manhattan, to renew our common purpose for a new century and to write the next chapter in the story of America’s success.”
Millions of Americans are eagerly looking forward to the realization of that next chapter and hoping Obama will be its author.
By Herb Boyd