Feb 13th 2013

A Progressive Economic Narrative

by Mike Lux

Michael Lux is the co-founder and CEO of Progressive Strategies, L.L.C., a political consulting firm founded in 1999, focused on strategic political consulting for non-profits, labor unions, PACs and progressive donors. He is also a partner at Democracy Partners, a progressive consulting firm. Previously, he was Senior Vice President for Political Action at People For the American Way (PFAW), and the PFAW Foundation, and served at the White House from January 1993 to mid-1995 as a Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. While at Progressive Strategies, Lux has founded, and currently chairs a number of new organizations and projects, including American Family Voices, the Progressive Donor Network, and BushRecall.org. Lux serves on the boards of several other organizations including the Arca Foundation, Americans United for Change, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, Center for Progressive Leadership, Democratic Strategist, Grassroots Democrats, Progressive Majority and Women’s Voices/Women Vote.In November of 2008, Mike was named to the Obama-Biden Transition Team. In that role, he served as an advisor to the Public Liaison on dealings with the progressive community and has helped shape the office of Public Liaison based on his past experience working on the Clinton-Gore Transition, as well as in the White House. On January 14, 2009, Lux released his first book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be. Lux's book was published by Wiley Publishing. You can purchase The Progressive Revolution by clicking here.

No surprise that a populist progressive Democrat like me would like President Obama’s State Of The Union address that talked so much about lifting up the middle class. But there’s a background story on getting to the President’s message last night that is little known but worth telling.

January of 2011 was a very bleak moment for progressive leaders. The tea party Republicans had just taken over the US House as well as way too many state legislative chambers and Governor’s seats, but that wasn’t the only reason we were depressed. President Obama, clearly shaken by the massive losses of 2010, was in retreat both in his messaging and in his political strategy. He had decided to spend almost as much of his rhetorical firepower as the Republicans on the deficit issue, and was eagerly looking to compromise with them- “meet them more than halfway”, as he was fond of saying. Obama had just given in on a two year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2%, and it was clear he was willing to give up a lot more. By the summer of 2011, Obama’s political low point, he had given up an enormous amount in spending cuts for progressive priorities on both a budget cutting compromise in the spring and the debt ceiling deal in the summer, and gotten no concessions at all from the Republicans on tax increases for the wealthy.

Three things happened, though, that turned the political tide and brought us to our present political moment: a handily re-elected and confident President with his highest approval ratings ever and a strong populist progressive message.

First, this President and his political team showed themselves quite good at learning from their mistakes, as they switched strategies and message. Second, the Republicans seriously over-reached, following their far right base over the political cliff on issues, and nominating the ultimate symbol of Wall Street arrogance as their party’s standard bearer. And third, progressives showed that they could create a way to influence the debate and pull the President toward a stronger, clearer message.

The first of these two things are well known and well documented. The third is not, but it is a story progressives should hear and understand as they move forward to work on influencing the debate over the next few years. It all starts in that bleak month of January, 2011. Faced with tea party Republicans on a roll and a defensive back-tracking President, progressive leaders from the labor movement, other progressive organizations, and the Netroots movement met together to talk about how we could create a progressive populist center of gravity powerful enough to pull the President in our direction. What we believed is that we had not been effective over the previous couple of years in telling our story of how the economy works and why Americans should choose progressive policies that focused on helping low and middle income families. We invited to the discussions smart message folks like Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake, Paul Begala, Drew Weston, and Van Jones to help us craft a narrative that would have a strong appeal to the vast majority of American voters.

This is what we came up with, a progressive economic narrative that we could all rally around. And the progressive movement came together to tell that story. Labor union presidents started telling that story in their speeches, and union organizers began telling that story in their organizing work. Online organizations like Rebuild the Dream and Moveon started using some of this language in their emails. Bloggers started writing about it in their blog posts. Broad progressive coalitions on the budget fights started getting briefed on how to use it in their budget messaging. Networks of state and local progressive organizations like USAction and the Center for Community Change started using it in their local organizing work. Progressive think tanks like Campaign for America’s Future and Center for American Progress told the story in some of their messaging work. Progressive academics like Jacob Hacker used some of the language in his landmark economic plan Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy for All.    

It took a while, and of course (as it should be) every group and leader using the narrative had their own angle on the story. We weren’t all marching lockstep, and that was the way it should be. But these same basic ideas were a part of our collective story telling: that a rising, prosperous middle class as the engine of our economy; how we need to expand that middle class by bringing the poor and the young into it, not shrink it by having a low wage economy; that we needed not only jobs but good jobs with rising wages; that all Americans deserved the opportunity to reach our full potential; that government needs to be on the side of all Americans, not only the wealthy and powerful; that we needed to promote American manufacturing, and invest in our infrastructure and our schools.

And now they are at the heart of the story President Obama has been telling the American people in his SOTU, in his 2nd inaugural address, on the campaign trail last year. From last night: “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth- a rising, thriving middle class.” And “A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.” And “no one who works full time should have to live in poverty…” And “Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger America. It is this kind of prosperity- broad, shared, and built on a thriving middle class- that has always been the source of our progress at home.” You are speaking our language, Mr. President.

It wasn’t because the President’s speech writers saw the website and thought it sounded good. It was because they are reading the same polling we are, because they are seeing the same focus groups. It is because this is where the American people have come around to after flirting with the tea party no government is ever good rhetoric. America’s middle class knows it is getting crushed, and it knows that wealthy and powerful special interests have been making out like bandits on the backs of the rest of us. People are rallying around the story we are telling because it is common sense. The progressive center of gravity we built with this narrative pulled the president and the public in our direction because the story is true, and because it has powerful resonance in people’s lives.

What Democrats and progressives need to do is what President Obama has been doing ever since he made his turn to this message in his speech in the fall of 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas: keep telling the story over and over again. And here’s what else we, and the President, need to do: follow up by pushing big, politically bold ideas for rebuilding that middle class and holding the big special interests accountable. Government policies can and should promote higher wages through the minimum wage increase, stronger unions, and government contractors being forced to pay their workers better; government investments in manufacturing, green energy, infrastructure, and education need to be made; corporate crooks including those on Wall Street need to be prosecuted for their crimes, and companies that are so big that they are able to manipulate markets need to be broken up.

This is what progressives should be fighting for, and this is the story we should be telling. It is our moment, and the American people are listening.

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More Current Affairs

Oct 17th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But property-sector woes are not the only economic danger China faces in 2021-22. The Chinese government’s mounting crackdown on the country’s burgeoning tech sector may pose an even greater threat." ---- "According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, the share of Chinese urban employment supported by private enterprises more than quadrupled between 1995 and 2018, from just 18% to 87%. The share of exports generated by the private sector more than doubled over the same period, from 34% to 88%. And private-sector fixed-asset investment jumped from 42% to 65% of the total. The message in the data is clear: clamping down on the private sector and threatening innovators is not the way to ensure sustained rapid growth. Chinese entrepreneurs can read the writing on the wall. They understand that their political and regulatory room to maneuver is shrinking, and that the balance has shifted in favor of state-owned firms and public officials. And they understand that this uneasy atmosphere is likely to persist."
Oct 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "We designed a programme that incorporated data from over 300 million buildings and analysed 130 million km² of land – almost the entire land surface area of the planet. This estimated how much energy could be produced from the 0.2 million km² of rooftops present on that land, an area roughly the same size as the UK."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "Britain in the 1950s was wedded to the US, acting as a partner rather than leading the charge. Now, while the UK continues to support the US, the influence it has seems negligible. While it may bring comfort to the UK to feel it is a partner to a superpower, being its stooge or subordinate is an unpleasant place to be, no matter how much you tell yourself it values your opinion."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "That was then. Now, the Chinese government has doubled down, with President Xi Jinping throwing the full force of his power into a “common prosperity” campaign aimed at addressing inequalities of income and wealth. Moreover, the regulatory net has been broadened, not just to ban cryptocurrencies, but also to become an instrument of social engineering, with the government adding e-cigarettes, business drinking, and celebrity fan culture to its ever-lengthening list of bad social habits. All this only compounds the concerns I raised two months ago. The new dual thrust of Chinese policy – redistribution plus re-regulation – strikes at the heart of the market-based “reform and opening up” that have underpinned China’s growth miracle since the days of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It will subdue the entrepreneurial activity that has been so important in powering China’s dynamic private sector, with lasting consequences for the next, innovations-driven, phase of Chinese economic development. Without animal spirits, the case for indigenous innovation is in tatters."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Wartime nostalgia plays an important part in Britain’s instinctive fondness for the special relationship. Like former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some British politicians might believe that the United Kingdom is the only European country with serious armed forces and the political will to use them. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Blair before him, seems to fancy himself a modern-day Churchill. Unfortunately (or not), Britain’s military power is insignificant compared to what Churchill could command in 1944. Wartime nostalgia has drawn Britain into several foolish American wars, which other European countries were wise to avoid."
Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
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Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."