WASHINGTON, DC — 10:00 am — Vice President Joe Biden was raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania and has lived for decades in Wilmington, Delaware — both working middle class communities that have been under siege from both domestic and international economic forces.
This morning at the Center for American Progress, Biden is going to host a discussion on the factors undermining America’s middle class with a number of scholars and public intellectuals. I’m here now at the meeting which is co-sponsored with the Economic Policy Institute.
I have no idea whether anything substantial will be disclosed today — but I wanted to hear Biden first hand discuss what he thinks needs to happen with the economy.
Joe Biden has been playing the role of “skunk at the picnic” in the tough internal strategy discussions on America’s Afghanistan course — and I applaud that. He deserves real credit for not jumping on policy bandwagons in the White House.
I’m hoping Joe Biden will increasingly be willing to play the role of “skunk at the picnic” in taking on the Lawrence Summers-dominated economic framework that the Obama administration has thus far strongly embraced.
Here is the link to the live webcast:
Others participating in the discussion will be Melody Barnes, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and a former senior staff member at the Center for American Progress; Lawrence Mishel, President, Economic Policy Institute; Heather Boushey, Senior Economist, Center for American Progress; Jim Kessler, Vice President for Policy, Third Way; Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow on Economic Studies, Brookings Institution; Ralph Whitehead, Professor of Journalism, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
I’ll be posting updates as this moves along. SEIU’s chief Andy Stern just walked in. OMB Watch’s Dana Chasin is here too.
Vice President Biden has just arrived. We don’t see him yet — but I hear his voice. There are about 90 people in the room. Just saw now Leo Hindery in the front row. Hindery served as Senior Economic Policy Advisor to John Edwards during his most recent presidential campaign and then was on economic advisory team to candidate Barack Obama.
Chief Economic Advisor to the President Jared Bernstein just walked in the room — and connected with a lot of folks. He’s smart and personable — like Austan Goolsbee — which is rare for White House economists.
Center for American Progress EVP Sarah Wartell now introducing the Vice President. Good intro — focusing on themes of working families and middle class.
Joe Biden just recognized Change to Win Chair Anna Burger and SEIU President Andy Stern for being two of the primary drivers of the administration’s Middle Class Task Force.
Biden acknowledges that it was not because of this recession that it all of a sudden dawned on President Obama and himself that supporting the middle class was important now. They have been watching for years — and concerned about — the crushing health care costs, educational costs, and other pressures challenging the American middle class. The recession did not cause these recent problems — but it did seriously aggravate them.
Biden correctly notes that in many American middle class communities where a couple dozen years ago a single paycheck was enough to sustain a family in a nice home — but now one pay check won’t do it. This is a systemic problem — and Biden suggests that the administration — in all of its relevant departments and agencies — must do more to directly impact the deteriorating condition of the American middle class.
The issues of concern to Biden are that correcting these problems is not just about the size or number of paychecks in a family — its a broader challenge about quality of life involving pensions, education, health care, care for elderly parents. He’s talking about the components of the American social contract with its citizens and is suggesting that we need to change the terms, and improve the terms, of that social contract with American working families.
Biden mentioned taking the Middle East Task Force objectives on the road for the first eight months of the administration — talking about a St. Louis meeting that focused on college education. They went to Denver to talk about “green job opportunities.” These trips were followed by meetings in Toledo, Ohio talking about revitalizing “new” rather than “old” manufacturing — plate glass to solar panels. This was followed by meetings in Silver Springs, Maryland. . .
Biden now introducing the panelists listed above.
Makes the good point that many labor union paychecks can’t achieve the middle class life in the way that most Americans have come to consider that life.
In his intro of Melody Barnes, Biden said that while she was a valued Center for American Progress alum in the Obama administration, “She is not coming back to CAP.” Biden said “if she goes, I go” and paid tribute to her focus on working to bolster policy support for the American middle class. (too bad Lawrence Summers is not here taking notes)
Biden makes clear that American working families have not been fairly benefiting from the growth and gains that they have been helping to generate for the overall economy. He’s not talking about “income redistribution” according to Biden. He said, “we’re talking about giving working families a chance at getting on the middle class track” in real terms.
Biden thinks that the adminstration thinks it is making progress — and is thinking “beyond the recession.” He said the US economy grew 3.5% in last quarter — but that is not anything we can become content about.
Obama said “we need unions”, “investments in college affordability to promote mobility”, and other nodes of support to fix the ecosystem of support for the American middle class that is really broken.
Biden is saying that the fundamental challenge facing families today is that parents just don’t believe today that their children are going to be as well off as they are. The Vice President is arguing that there is a crisis of confidence in the future — and that many Americans are losing their homes, losing their middle class foundation that supports the hopes and dreams of their families. Biden is right.
Biden continues that jobs are not just about paychecks — jobs are about dignity. Biden acknowledges that there are an awful lot of Americans being stripped of their dignity and not being given an even shot that gets them in middle class circumstances if they work hard.
Now he is moving to the panel.
Ralph Whitehead now speaking. Each speaker will outline a few points in five minutes are so. Puts on the table that at one point in American history we used to have a goal of a “universal middle class”. Began to fall apart in the 1980s.
Lawrence Mishel now up. Says it is important that as we emerge from “the great recession” it is important to help families get an onramp back into middle class circumstances and opportunities. Mishel suggests that the reason the economic waters are so choppy is the long-term, incessant erosion of well-paying jobs. He suggests that this erosion of the American job base is due to policy choices made by government. Thinks growth in an economy can’t be driven by debt and asset bubbles — but rather by productivity increases in a real economy and a real job base. (Joe Biden’s body language is signaling that Mishel is going on a bit long. . .ironic actually)
Heather Boushey up. She is addressing the profound changes in the role of women in the working economy. Today only one in five families have a male parent earning a family paycheck with a stay at home mom. Most families in the country are not designed in this 1950s era model — and our laws and family support structures haven’t caught up with the realities of the modern working family. Heather notes that the average working familiy puts in 568 hours more work today than in the past — 14 weeks more today than thirty years ago — and this creates huge time squeezes and burdens at home.
Jim Kessler now speaking — says that median household income is $49,000 but that this represents 19-year old head of households as well as 79-year old head of households. Says we don’t have policy for these ranges. Says that there is a difference between economic strategies “to get by” and strategies “to get ahead.” These people don’t see how government makes their lives appreciably better — and don’t see the government as helping in a pathway to success. Says the problem in America today is that too many Americans no longer believe that they can live up to their own economic and lifestyle aspirations for themselves.
Melody Barnes now at bat — talking about her journeys around the country asking audiences whether they believed in the “American dream.” Hands always went up — but the fact is that there are a lot of policies in conflict with living the American dream and becoming part of the US middle class.
Says health care is one of the fundamental pillars of American families’ middle class goals. Stretching harder and harder to get in to the house in the community with good schools. Says that one job loss or one health incident and a family can fall over the cliff. Talking about Obama’s and Biden’s discussion about a cradle through career educational structure. Barnes suggests that this kind of educational arc can become a major pillar of support for the middle class.
Barnes says that Immigrants and new immigrants to the country have challenges on health care and education fronts — says that new US citizens — have a very tough time getting an on-ramp to the American middle class.
Now apparently going to a conversational format.
Biden says that he is going to be the “devil’s advocate” for a moment and pose in his queries as a person who is not in sync with the progressive goals outlined on the panel.
Biden said that an acquaintance of his believes that people have unrealistic aspirations — that are beyond what they should be — and that the gap between reality and aspirations is the real problem (but Biden is not saying that this is his own view). . .
Kessler responds that most people don’t have lofty aspirations — that they want a good home, want to be able to educate their children, want good health care, want to be able to take care of their elderly parents, and more of the like. So these basic aspirations have required more work to achieve — but they remain realistic and fair aspirations.
I am going to cease live-blogging the rest of the program. It is an interesting discussion but most of the key points that are being raised by the interesting panel have already been raised before or are fairly easily predicted given the world view of this panel that jobs matter and that the American middle class matters.
What is really interesting about this meeting which does a good job explicating what the political objectives for the nation — and for the American middle class — ought to be, it is not in touch with the ideological divide that exists inside the administration today between those focused on macro factors and financial sector health as the primary parameters to work on vs. those who think that there must be a micro-orientation that is sensitive to supporting increasing high-paying jobs and trying to stimulate an innovation economy and related jobs that undergird a healthy middle class.
Biden is posturing as a skeptic in order to challenge the implied assumptions of those on the panel. He just did that querying whether technology — more than other forces — was undermining the American job base. ‘
But the bigger issue really focuses on the Obama administration’s own policy choices — that were targeted on using legislated monies to bail out financial firms — but not really re-writing the American domestic social contract or doing more to invest in a new infrastructure backbone in the nation on the scale needed to both generate lots of new jobs and create recurring returns for the US economy over future generations.
I really like Biden. I think he’s asking the right questions and speaks to the real issues that the American middle class is struggling with.
What is tough to take though is that this whole event would be dramatically different if Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner or Christina Romer were on the panel. These three have really been the primary architects of an economic policy that did not have as its north star the middle class, job generation, lifestyle enhancing objectives outlined by the Vice President and the speakers here today at the Center for American Progress.
The policy problem today is in part that the best economic policy practitioners in the Obama administration — across the full spectrum and not just the faction represented here today — are not pulling in the same direction.
Bravo to Biden, Jared Bernstein, and the rest for an interesting program — but other powerful branches of the White House really should be here taking notes and participating in a constructive way in this discussion.
— Steve Clemons