Time for National Greatness Liberalism

The early 21st-century United States is falling behind the international competition in many areas of economic innovation. Eroding human capital, a cowed middle class worried about declining wages and fraying families, decaying traditional infrastructure, and a prolonged failure to invest in up-to-date communications, transportation, and energy systems all explain why a once leading nation is headed into "has been" status. Surveys tell us that Americans are pessimistic about our future and suspect that competitors such as China are overtaking us. But you don't really need a poll to tell which way the wind is blowing. Walk into any diner in any community beyond the privileged, elite bubbles in Washington, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, and you will hear people talking about their worries -- not just for themselves and their families but for our country.

All of this was true before the recent Wall Street financial meltdown, housing collapse, and Great Recession. The coincidence, however, of such a profound economic crisis with the arrival in 2009 of a reform-oriented Democratic president backed by large congressional majorities offered the perfect opportunity for national economic renewal.

Millions of new jobs are needed to dig us out of the hole created by the crisis. We cannot merely stop the plunge. At this critical juncture, new private, public, and private-public investments would be cost-effective uses of economic resources. The price of labor and materials for new projects to rebuild America is lower than it would be in a booming economy. We have an unparalleled opportunity to connect investments in the foundations of U.S. economic renewal to concrete improvements in employment, education, and health.

It's a no-brainer, really. America needs a National Greatness Liberalism -- a brawny brand of politics that makes a tough-minded argument about what it will take from our government and democratic politics to regain our national economic strength and rebuild a broad, secure, and innovative middle class. Our national military and diplomatic strength in a dangerous world depends, too, on our economic renewal as a middle-class capitalist economy.

Investments for America's future can be linked to tradition -- a sure formula for political success. The history of a delimited yet robust government role in spurring broad capitalist economic growth stretches all the way back to the nation's beginnings. America's federal government spread the world's first national postal network; fostered the proliferation of family farms; encouraged then-state-of-the-art transportation systems such as canals and railroads; and ensured generous support for military veterans and their families. State and local governments spread mass primary and secondary public schooling -- putting the United States into the educational lead for much of the modern industrial era.

Even a cursory survey of the last century shows that national economic fortunes have always depended upon robust synergies between public and private investment. Periods when the national government and state governments have been cowed into minimalism or captured by super-wealthy interests looking to rip off public resources -- think of the late 1920s as well as the Wall Street era of the late 20th century -- have been associated with faltering economic growth as well as extremes of poverty and middle-class decline. By contrast, times such as the post-World War II era of extraordinary American prosperity and power have been periods in which major social programs -- such as Social Security and the GI bill -- spread opportunity and security. Likewise, during these points, America made huge public investments in infrastructure -- such as the national highway system -- and the privileged paid substantial taxes, even as they reaped profits from the booming economy.

Barack Obama campaigned for office in 2007 and 2008, promising to restore the American dream and build a bottom-up economy. He pledged to make the rich pay their fair share and to invest on behalf of the middle class. When he took office amid a gathering economic storm, he had the perfect moment to press forward. The wildly popular new president had the ear of an anxious yet hopeful public and could have pushed a bold, patriotic plan for rebuilding America -- a plan marrying his reforms in health care and higher-education access to hefty public investments and new public-private partnerships to create universal high-speed Internet, repair and build transportation facilities, and seed major new investments in energy creation and dissemination. It might not all have passed in the 111th Congress, but Americans would have learned what national economic recovery and full employment will take. They could have assigned some blame to those who frustrated the vision.

Alas, Obama never called for bold, understandable steps to rebuild America. Instead, he dissipated his economic efforts into emergency spending to shore up Wall Street and the Detroit automakers, while pushing spending and tax cuts in already well-worn grooves. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act had many promising pieces to a more comprehensive investment strategy, but they remained submerged and invisible -- as well as insufficient to create millions of new jobs. Americans soon conflated what Obama did about the economy with the hated "bailouts" of Wall Street fat cats, who quickly went back to reaping outrageous profits and paying themselves extravagant bonuses.

To this day, Democrats have tailor-made openings to show how GOP hostility to government is hurting job creation and economic growth. Following victories in November 2010, Republican governors pandering to anti-government extremists in their party base are slashing job-creating infrastructure projects. In Wisconsin, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, abruptly canceled all federal funding for a 110-mile train line linking Milwaukee to Madison, cutting off a prospective growth of 10,000 jobs and causing a train-equipment company, Talgo, to close up shop in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is not atypical. When conservative GOP darling Chris Christie won the governorship of New Jersey in a 2009 special election, he immediately canceled his state's small contribution to a New York-New Jersey tunnel, the nation's largest infrastructure project, much needed to carry overwhelming traffic into Manhattan. Christie would not budge, even though the federal government and New York were paying much of the tab. Similarly, in Ohio in November 2010, newly elected Gov. John Kasich, also a Republican, canceled a cross-state train project funded by the federal government, returning more than $400 million and sparking incredulity at the loss of thousands of projected jobs in his economically struggling state.

The early 21st-century GOP leaves plenty of room for National Greatness Liberalism. Lashed by the Tea Party and its billionaire backers, virtually all GOPers are hostile to any forward-looking government role. Their platforms consist of tax cuts for the very rich, ever more sweeping deregulation of businesses, attacks on the jobs and benefits of public employees -- and firm opposition to any public infrastructure efforts except, perhaps, modest highway repairs. This partisan vision is not only economically perverse and downright unpatriotic; it is unhinged from the reality of U.S. history. Yet President Obama and many other Democrats seem oddly unwilling to carve out an alternative vision.

It is not too late. True, Obama was hammered in November 2010 -- and faces an incoming 112th Congress that will not be open to much beyond tax cuts for the rich and rhetorically using "the deficit crisis" to undercut economic stimulus and hammer public programs for the poor and the middle class. But the silver lining is that, now, more than ever, Obama's personal interest in re-election demands that he speak more eloquently to the nation as a whole. He needs to be aggressive both in defense and offense if he is to get off his own goal line and lead his team down the field.

President Obama should stop arguing on the conservative terrain of tax cuts and long-term deficit-reduction measures -- and start speaking to the immediate concern of Americans for national economic renewal. That is his job as president, and the people will fire him if he does not start doing it. President Obama should tell us what it will take, really, to rebuild America -- and how both public and private investments can intertwine to create jobs and spur innovation.

He can sidestep a lot of the center-versus-left debates inside the Democratic Party about how to carry out the new initiatives by calling for a team of business leaders, responsible public officials (mayors, governors, and former governors, not Congress people) to lay out a vision of public-private partnerships to invest in new and restored infrastructure. He can expand upon their ideas by highlighting the jobs that will be created, even as we spur future growth -- traveling around the country to highlight the double gains.

Obama can also make jobs and future growth the touchstones of aggressive defense. As the GOP House tries to undo health-care reform and slash higher-education spending, Obama must wield the veto pen -- but not in the name of "compassion." Alan Blinder, for example, recently did an eloquent job of laying out the ills of our slow-growth, unequal "Dickensian Economy" in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. But as he laid out the ills of slow growth and anemic investments, his constant refrain was "Is that fair?" This is weak tea. The point for 21st-century Democrats ought not just to be compassion for the less privileged. It ought to be to fight, loud and clear, for what it will take in the way of public investments and well-funded social programs to build a strong America. We cannot get there unless someone makes the case for public investments for our future.

If President Obama will not take up this cause, what are determined Democrats to do? Trying to organize a primary challenge to Obama for 2012 is a fool's errand. It continues the over-obsession with the presidency that has hampered modern liberalism. Conservatives, in contrast, understand the value of linking national goals to state and local organizing. Unwavering Democrats -- what the late Paul Wellstone called the "Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party" -- should find their voice for National Greatness Liberalism and proceed to organize money and people to push that vision.

If key funders and organizers unite around some common label and strategic efforts, they can do a lot through persistent messaging and campaigns for Congress and state-level offices. Over several election cycles, they can turn the tables on GOP hypocrisy -- in places like Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Ohio -- and reclaim the Democratic hold on America's national purpose and economic future. In the process, better officials in Congress and statehouses will create opportunities and pressures in the right direction for whoever inhabits the White House. If Obama makes it to re-election, he will do better if an independent movement surrounds him.

In his Inaugural Address, Obama spoke of wanting to turn things around for millions of his fellow citizens who have, as he put it, "a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights." Obama should take pause in the realization that, after two years of controlling the presidential bully pulpit, even more of his fellow citizens feel this way. Obama should regain his voice and articulate a vision of national greatness and how to use government and the private sector to get there. If he cannot or will not do so, then millions of his fellow Democrats should organize separately and proceed to meet the challenge.