Remember all those speeches you gave filled with statistics and stories about the middle-class squeeze? You spoke the truth. Wages really are stagnant, and we really are struggling to buy the basics. The core of a middle-class life--a home, health insurance, a good education for our children, the things our parents could take for granted--is rapidly moving out of reach. Debt, defaults, and foreclosures for a typical middle-class family have soared in the past four years. Every 15 seconds, one of our middle-class neighbors collapses into bankruptcy.
You already know this. Your opponent called you a pessimist for talking about it--and watched nervously when people nodded in agreement as you spoke. We elected you because we believed, “Here's a guy who gets it.”
Now, turn your speeches into reality. But before you launch policy proposals, speak to us about our values. Talk about how you will help us dream again for ourselves and our children. Here's what we want to hear:
Fairness matters. We will not accept the Enron-ization of America, where insider deals and corporate welfare tilt the playing field in favor of well-connected mega-businesses and political friends. Stand for fair play--not handouts, not special interests--just plain, old-fashioned, everyone-plays-by-the-same rules. In the name of fairness, stop the rogues in the financial-services industry who quietly steal families' homes and pensions. Reject welfare cheats, corporate cheats, or cheats of any other stripe. Speak to us of fundamental fairness, and we will believe again in what we can be.
The future comes first. Our children are our best natural resource. We cannot risk wasting a single one of them. Parents are stretched to the financial breaking point, and many worry that when a Democrat talks about helping children, it really means taking our money to help some other child. Push for high-quality schools for every child, including ours. Please remember that preschool, K-12, and college are all necessary to prepare for tomorrow's economy, so put universal preschool and affordable college high on the agenda. And when you talk about the future, expose budget trickery and chronic deficits for what they are: “taxing our children.”
Hard-working Americans deserve the basics. Dig deep into the reasons why families are working hard and sliding backward: The basics now cost more than average families can afford no matter how hard they work. Get us started on a virtuous circle. When all schools improve, families won't have to pay a king's ransom to buy housing in decent school districts. When everyone has health insurance, the costs will go down for us all. Keep our vision on what we deserve for our hard work, and we will pull together to make it happen.
A strong democracy requires a strong middle class. Our democracy rests on a rock-solid middle class that resists extremism and zealotry. Revitalizing the middle is an act of true patriotism, and it should be treated as nothing less. Call on our patriotism; we are ready to answer.
And now for a few words on how not to galvanize America:
Avoid the language of poverty and handouts. Families want a chance to work hard and earn the basics. Government policies that make education and health insurance accessible to everyone are not handouts for the needy but policies to strengthen America.
It is not about class warfare. The rich are not the enemy--in fact, most of us would like to be rich. Corruption and misplaced priorities are the enemy. And the poor are not the only ones who have problems, so don't talk as if they are the only ones who deserve compassion. Americans risk fracturing into disparate groups, jealously guarding whatever benefits we have gained, pursuing separate identities instead of the country's shared identity as part of one great American middle class. That makes us nervous. Lead from the middle, because a middle-focused agenda helps all Americans, including our poor and our wealthy.
Sir, it has been a long time since a president made our hearts race. We are feeling intense pressure, and we want a leader who will strengthen our families and our country. Our middle class has been forged by families who have known hardship and conflict, and we dream of giving our children something better. We are fighters. Help us fight for our dream.
Elizabeth Warren is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. Amelia Warren Tyagi is co-founder of HealthAllies. They are co-authors of The Two-Income Trap.