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Heather C. McGhee: Lesson of election is Obama must fight for a direct jobs program

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And now joining us from her home in Washington to discuss Tuesday night’s election results is Heather C. McGhee. She’s the head of the DC office for the think tank Demos, and she was policy director on the Edwards campaign in 2008. Thanks for joining us, Heather.

HEATHER MCGHEE, DEMOS, WASHINGTON, DC: Thanks for having me, Paul.

JAY: So the Republicans have taken the House, another sort of an earthquake change in Washington. What’s your headline? What do you take away from this?

MCGHEE: I think my headline is that it’s nearly 10 percent unemployment. I mean, unfortunately, there are millions of Americans who through no fault of their own have lost their jobs, and the economy’s really suffering in very real terms. And so it would be nearly impossible for the incumbent party, no matter which party it was, that didn’t have a really strong economic message, and wasn’t really able to convince the American people that the economy would do better with them, to have prevailed in this election.

JAY: The inability to communicate what’s before the American people, likely austerity plan, never mind more stimulus, you’d think that could have been communicated. But, instead, the Democrats seem to buy into some of the underlying assumptions about the danger of inflation, the danger of more debt, and deficit cutting. You know, if you buy into the assumptions of the people you’re fighting with, maybe it’s hard for people to get clear on just what the heck you’re trying to say.

MCGHEE: I think that’s always a really fair critique, unfortunately, of the Democratic Party is that there are—our tent is maybe a little big, and our foundation is maybe a little bit weak. We have a battle that goes on all of the time within the Democratic Party for what are our core assumptions about the economy and our democracy and what are our core values. I believe, and Demos as an organization believes, that we are in a period of unprecedented inequality that demands really strong government support for a more broadly shared prosperity. We’ve done it before in this country. Government policies built the middle class in the postwar era—and I’ll note that that was deficit and debt spending that created the middle class that we cherish so much as a core American value. We think that we really need to recommit to doing every single thing we possibly can to get Americans back to work, and that’s going to require deficit spending.

JAY: Well, you worked on the Edwards campaign, and one of the main messages of that campaign was that there are two Americas, not we’re red states, no blue states, just the United States, or not we’re all one nation. It was very much that, you know, it’s not just that there is a middle class. I mean, if there’s a middle class, there’s an upper and a lower, which means you’re living in some kind of a class society. You don’t hear anything that approaches that from this administration, or policies that seem to want to address it.

MCGHEE: I think on the policy point it’s a little unfair, because I do think that the health-care bill, well, I mean, progressives were fighting for health care for the greater part of a century, and we do tend to want to eat our young and forget about that amazing victory that happened. I do think there’s a lot in the Recovery Act was really expanding the social safety net in a way that progressives have been fighting for since the Reagan era. However, in the rhetoric, this is the time—if the Democrats can’t be economic populists now, I really don’t know when they ever are going to be, and I’m very concerned that actually it’s the Tea Party that is picking up this mantle of populism. We have record inequality in this country. We have the lowest revenue being collected by our federal government that we have in 50 years. We have incomes stagnating for the middle and working classes. We need a coherent economic vision that talks about class, that is hopeful and aspirational and says that there is a role for government in rebuilding the public structures that created a middle class. But that tells a story to the American people that they can see themselves in, and I’m just not seeing that from our president right now.

JAY: So what do people do? The Democratic Party seems to be that it’s unlikely to see, especially after this vote, any seismic change at the level of the White House or the level of the party leadership. So what are people to do if they want to see economic policies more closely aligned with their own interests?

MCGHEE: I think that’s a really good question. I think that there is going to be a real battle within the Democratic Party in this period. They’re going to be the even bys’ and the third ways of the world who are going to say that it’s time for us to triangulate, it’s time for us to tack right. But there is a very lively and committed, more, as Howard Dean used to call, democratic wing of the Democratic Party, a more progressive wing of the party that has an economic vision, that has been organizing and mobilizing for the moment when we have the president’s ear again. And I think it’s up to everyone who really feels like there’s something missing from the presidency to write to him, to call to him, to join up with the organizations that are actually pushing for a more progressive response.

JAY: Now, the thing is is that while a lot of Blue Dog Democrats lost in the House, which will make, in theory, the caucus a little more liberal, a little more left, it’s not like progressive candidates did so well in this election. You know, either they also lacked a coherent economic message. I mean, is that—you know, from the progressive side as well, where is that vision about what economics will work for ordinary people? Because it seems to me right now people just are—you know, they’ll vote to throw whatever bums out happen to be occupying the seats. But it’s not only that. This trickle-down economics that one would have thought would have been buried a long time ago has made an enormous comeback with the Tea Party and the money behind the Tea Party, and the economic argument against it doesn’t seem to be breaking through.

MCGHEE: I think that’s a really good point. Of coarse it’s made a comeback. It’s—the stakes are higher now than they’ve ever been for the very well- organized corporate elite in this country. I mean, we’ve got an enormous concentration of wealth, as well as policies on the horizon that could really reshape our economy, speaking about the green economy and a shift to clean energy, really, the opportunity to actually take down Wall Street in a way that we sort of got to the 50 yard line with the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. And with the things that are going on with the foreclosures and the real mess on the balance sheets of these banks, we’re going to see another opportunity to really confront the power of Wall Street. So the stakes are really high. Of coarse there’s a lot of money going into trying to revive the economic premises of trickle-down economics and deregulation. I do think, however, that there is a coherent narrative to be told, and that there are a lot of people around the country who are speaking that way in their districts, who are allying themselves with one another, and who have a vision for an economy that works for everyone.

JAY: Now there was a bit of a message sent to the Democratic Party leadership in this election, in the sense that a lot of people that voted in ’08 for President Obama, it looks like they stayed home. And that threat of staying home, should that not be exercised with a little more deliberateness as we head to 2012, that you can’t—. Like, let me ask you very specifically. Are African Americans, who are critical to any 2012 victory by President Obama, are they going to be again inspired to come out if over the next two years they don’t see something real?

MCGHEE: I mean, I think obviously the African-American base for President Obama is his strongest base. In the midterms elections, the normal fault lines that happen–participation are actually usually exacerbated, so we’re seeing a lot of that. We always see that families with less money actually vote at lower rates, and particularly in midterm elections. And so there’s a little bit of that going on, there’s a little bit of the economic pressures and a little bit of the systemic and structural issues that we still have in our democracy, with unequal access and unequal civic participation. I do think that President Obama has been looking to 2012 for some time now. I do think we’re going to see the person that we all voted for or that so many Americans voted for in 2008 come back and really be, as he used to say, fired up and ready to go. And I think that with a lot of hard work on the part of the grassroots organizations and mobilizing and the campaign, you will see the base, the younger voters and the African Americans, coming back in 2012. But it is going to require a coherent narrative, and I feel like I can’t say that enough.

JAY: Well, it’s going to require a real change in gears. It’s not a PR problem, I think, as much as it is a substantive problem, ’cause even if—I mean, he hit the campaign trails here, and that beautiful, charming smile was out again, but he was getting halls that weren’t even getting filled in places like Cleveland.

MCGHEE: I think that there’s—I mean, I think that there’s a lot to be said that we’re actually focusing a little bit too much on what the president is or isn’t doing and not enough on the economic realities in this country. I mean, it doesn’t—first of all, President Obama’s approval ratings are actually higher than were Bush and Clinton’s at this time in his presidency. And what—the best thing that President Obama can do to get his base motivated again is to turn the economy around. And I think that—and virtually all economists agree that what is necessary is more direct recovery spending. We need to actually do a public jobs program that directly puts Americans back to work. When corporations are sitting on trillions—.

JAY: Well, he’s been clearly against that from the beginning.

MCGHEE: I think he’s been—I think he’s actually been responsive to the problems with the filibuster in the Senate, and I think he’s been hewing a little bit too much to what the political realities are in the here and now. If you actually look at the words he’s been saying of late, he has been talking about public investment in clean energy and a need to stimulate the economy again. I think it’s going to be incumbent upon the Republicans who ran on, alright, jobs, jobs, jobs, the economy is so terrible, now it’s their job to actually fix it, and we’re going to see what they would actually do.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Heather.

MCGHEE: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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