Obama's Inner Truman

The president we elected in November 2008 gave a terrific speech on Labor Day in Detroit.

It's been a long time coming. This president's trademark seems to be that he doesn't find his inner fighter until his back is to the wall (along with ours). Obama's approval rating, at just 40 percent according to Gallup, 44 percent according to a new Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, is his lowest ever -- putting Obama in one-term-president territory. A recent Rasmussen poll has him losing to Texas Governor Rick Perry, 44-41.

The politics of bipartisan conciliation have been an utter failure, as even Obama's political advisers must now have admitted. The Labor Day speech also gave Obama a chance to try out some themes for his bigger Thursday address, and the reception was warm.

Several things about this speech were remarkable, but three in particular stand out.

First, he embraced the labor movement, explicitly and without reservation. Conventional wisdom says support for organized labor is dropping in the general opinion polls, and Democratic presidents should proceed gingerly. But Obama not only celebrated trade unionism. He used unions to make the case that elites have been ruining the lives of working families and the American middle class. He said, in part:

The work you've done that helped build the greatest middle class the world has ever known. I'm talking about the work that got us a 40-hour workweek and weekends, and paid leave and pensions, and the minimum wage and health insurance, and Social Security and Medicare -- (applause) -- the cornerstones of middle-class security. That's because of your work.

If you want to know who helped lay these cornerstones of an American middle class you just have to look for the union label.

That's the bedrock this country is built on. Hard work. Responsibility. Sacrifice. Looking out for one another. Giving everybody a shot, everybody a chance to share in America's prosperity, from the factory floor to the boardroom. That's what unions are all about.

Roosevelt or Truman, on a good day, couldn't have put it better.

Many of Obama's advisers and the Wall Street chums who are financing his campaign would call this class warfare. But all of the class warfare in America lately has been top down. At the end of the day, despite the influence of big money, this is still a democracy and you win election by motivating a majority of people to vote for you. Speeches like this one are what it will take.

Second, Obama explicitly embraced Medicare and Social Security. This will make it a little harder for him to propose raising the Medicare age to 67 as part of a needless budget fix, or supporting a backdoor cut in Social Security via a stealth change in the cost of living adjustment formula, as many of his conservative advisers are urging him to do. If he's a fighter for Medicare and Social Security in Detroit but willing to sell them out in the back rooms of D.C., he looks like a hypocrite or worse.

Has he crossed some kind of Rubicon and rejected the austerity mongers? We'll soon see.

The third remarkable and uncharacteristic thing about his Labor Day speech was that Obama started sounding like a partisan. In previewing his Thursday address, Obama said,

I still believe both parties can work together to solve our problems. And given the urgency of this moment, given the hardship that many people are facing, folks have got to get together.

But we're not going to wait for them. We're going to see if we've got some straight shooters in Congress. We're going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party. We'll give them a plan, and then we'll say, do you want to create jobs? Then put our construction workers back to work rebuilding America. Do you want to help our companies succeed? Open up new markets for them to sell their products. You want -- you say you're the party of tax cuts? Well then, prove you'll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans. (Applause.) Show us what you got.

We're going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party. We will, indeed. And he used the words "fight" or "fighter" nine times.

He needs to go even further and pound away, day after day, on how neither right-wing cures nor centrist austerity will fix what's broken. And that means getting more distant not only from John Boehner and Eric Cantor but from many of his own fiscal advisers.

Still to come, of course, is the jobs program itself. As recently as late last week, White House advisers were putting out the word not to expect too much; that the president wanted something Republicans could support. But then came the dismal August jobs numbers and the even more alarming poll numbers.

So the old White House strategy is dead on arrival. The Republicans will support nothing that Obama proposes. So he might as well offer bold measures that will actually put large numbers of Americans back to work: A big, direct jobs program; serious aid to distressed state and local government; an infrastructure bank; an expanded transportation bill to repair highways, bridges, and improve mass transit.

That would help the president politically. It will give his foundering re-election campaign a theme to run on -- one that dramatically illustrates the difference between Obama and his far-right Republican opposition.

But given GOP obstructionism, little of this is likely to pass Congress. Working people have nearly a year and a half to survive between now and Obama's hoped-for second term, when the Democrats might take back the House and be able to legislate.

So Obama needs to use his executive power to create more and better jobs -- right now.

A good start was the White House August announcement of plans to create living jobs repairing foreclosed homes owned by the government via Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the Federal Housing Administration. This not only increases the supply of good jobs but also reclaims more affordable housing.

The president can also use executive power to enforce existing laws against wage theft, misclassification of regular workers as temps or contract workers, and above all, of workers' rights to join a union. Recent orders by the National Labor Relations Board, requiring employers to post notices of workers' rights and sanctioning Boeing for trying to intimidate the Machinists union by moving some operations to non-union South Carolina, are good starts.

And President Obama can use government's huge economic power as a contractor to insist, as Roosevelt did during World War II, that any company that bids on a government contract not be a union-buster or in violation of other labor laws. Fedex, a huge government contractor with a notorious record of pretending that regular workers are actual independent contractors, would be a good place to begin.

We will soon learn whether Obama's Labor Day speech was a one-off, specially tailored for a union audience, or whether this embattled president is at last reborn as a fighter.

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