On Wednesday I “climbed back up on the horse” so to speak and covered my first political event since last fall, when I had a vertebral aneurysm dissect and try to kill me. The road to recovery has been a long one and I’m not there yet but when the President of the United States is speaking on the campus where my now-husband first told me he loved me on the quad…well, wild horses couldn’t keep me away.
I listened carefully, concentrating on not just the words he was saying but the way he was saying them. And what I heard was a pep talk before a fight. He knows that the Republicans are going all-in to kill his signature achievement, the legislation that bears his name, not officially but in the common vernacular, and he isn’t going to roll over and play dead or throw up his hands in defeat. Instead he is out of his corner and landing blows already, which has them crying foul.
Just a little context here — in the period after World War II, you had a growing middle class that was the engine of our prosperity. The economy did well in part because everybody was participating. And whether you owned a company, or you swept the floors of that company, or you worked anywhere in between, America offered a basic bargain: If you work hard, then you will be rewarded with fair wages and benefits. You’ll have the chance to buy your own home.
You’ll have the chance to save for retirement.
You’ll have the protection of decent health insurance. But most of all, you’ll have the chance to pass on a better life to your kids.
And then what happened was that engine began to stall. The bargain began to fray. So technology made some jobs obsolete — nobody goes to a bank teller anymore. You want to schedule a trip somewhere, you get online. Global competition sent some jobs overseas. When I was in Galesburg, we talked about the Maytag plant that used to make household brands there and people — thousands of people used to work in the plant and it went down to Mexico. Then Washington doled out bigger tax cuts to folks at the top income brackets, smaller minimum wage increases for people who were struggling. You combine all this and the income of the top 1 percent quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged.
So a lot of middle-class families began to feel that the odds were stacked against them — and they were right. And then for a while, this was kind of papered over because we had a housing bubble going on, and everybody was maxing out on their credit cards, everybody was highly leveraged, there were a lot of financial deals going around. And so it looked like the economy was going to be doing okay, but then by the time I took office, the bottom had fallen out. And it cost, as we know, millions of Americans their jobs or their homes or their savings. And that long-term erosion of middle-class security was evident for everybody to see.
Now, the good news is, five years later, five years after the crisis first hit, America has fought its way back. So together, we saved an auto industry. We took on a broken health care system. We invested in new American technologies to reverse our addiction to foreign oil. We doubled the production of clean energy. Natural gas took off. We put in place tough new rules on big banks and mortgage lenders and credit card companies. We changed the tax code so it was fair for middle-class folks and didn’t just benefit folks at the very top like me. (Laughter.) No, it’s true, because things were skewed too much towards folks who were already blessed, already lucky. And you take all that together and now you add it all up.
What we’ve seen is over the past 40 months, our businesses have created more than 7.2 million new jobs. This year, we’re off to our strongest private sector job growth since 1999. (Applause.) Our exports have surged, so we sell more products made in America to the rest of the world than ever before. (Applause.) We produce more natural gas than any country on Earth. We’re about to produce more of our own oil than we buy from overseas, and that’s the first time that’s happened in nearly 20 years. (Applause.) The cost of health care is growing at its slowest rate in 50 years, so we’re slowing the growth of health care costs. (Applause.) And our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years. (Applause.) Deficits have been cut by almost half from the time I took office.
So we did this together, because Americans are gritty and resilient and work hard. We’ve been able to clear away the rubble of the financial crisis. We’re starting to lay a new foundation for more durable economic growth. And with the new revolutions in energy and technology and manufacturing and health care, we’re actually poised — we’re in a position to reverse all those forces that battered middle-class families for too long.
We can start building now an economy where everybody who works hard can get ahead.
That’s all good. That’s the good news.
But, Missouri, I’m here to tell you what you already know, which is we’re not there yet. In some ways, the trends that have been building for decades — this winner-take-all economy where a few do better and better, but everybody else just treads water — all those trends were made worse by the recession. And reversing these trends has to be Washington’s number one priority. (Applause.) It has to be Washington’s number one priority. (Applause.)
Putting people back to work, making sure the economy is working for everybody, building the middle class, making sure they’re secure — that’s my highest priority. That’s what I’m interested in. (Applause.) Because when the economy is working for middle-class families, it solves an awful lot of other problems. Now the poor start having ladders of opportunity they can climb into if they work hard. A lot of the social tensions are reduced, because everybody is feeling pretty good.
Now, unfortunately, over the past couple of years in particular, Washington hasn’t just ignored this problem — they’ve actually made it worse. And I am interested in working with everybody, and there are a bunch of not just Democrats, but also Republicans who recognize that Washington is not working. But we’ve also seen a group of folks, particularly in the House, a group of Republicans in Congress that — they suggested they wouldn’t vote to pay the bills that Congress had already run up. And that fiasco harmed a fragile recovery back in 2011.
I heard an edginess to his voice as he placed blame squarely where it belongs – at the feet of the Republicans who obstruct him at every turn. I heard a pugnacious tone that wasn’t there before but is now that he has run his last race and won his last election.
He knows that the Republicans are going to go back to their districts in August, where they will rail against Washington and he beat them to the punch. If he continues to take his message directly to the people like I heard him do on Wednesday, I wouldn’t bet against him hoisting the GOP on their own petard. Especially if they repeat the folly of 1995 and shut down the government because they finally, after nearly a hundred years, lost on healthcare.