By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
Weekly Commentary | Chicago Sun-Times
President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night will focus on inequality, on the reality that this economy does not work for working people. Given the obstruction of House and Senate Republicans, the president faces the reality that little of what he proposes can pass this Congress. He has vowed to use his “pen” and “phone” to act unilaterally where he can. But the real challenge is to explain to the American people what the reality is, what must be done and who is standing in the way.
Here are things we’d like to see in the presidential address.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
Every great change president — Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, even Ronald Reagan on the right — uses what TR called his “pulpit” to rally Americans, to help them understand the challenge we face, and that it does not have to be this way. With the middle class sinking and the poor struggling simply to survive, most blame themselves for their predicament. Some adjust to the new reality, thinking this is just the way things are. Some start to believe the best years of the country are behind us, that their children will face tougher odds and fare worse than they did.
The first task of President Obama is to not only make clear what the reality is, but to make it clear that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are basic things that can and should be done that can make a major difference.
Make Clear Who’s Standing in the Way
The president will call for a long overdue hike in the minimum wage. He should challenge the Congress to act immediately to renew emergency benefits for the jobless that expired in February. He should demand action on comprehensive immigration reform that has already passed the Senate. He should call for a jobs corps for the young, putting them to work in installing energy retrofits in public buildings, in reviving our public parks, in serving impoverished infants and the elderly. And he should make it clear who stands in the way.
A minimum wage hike would pass the House tomorrow if allowed to come to a vote. House Speaker Boehner refuses to allow that vote. That is true about unemployment benefits and about comprehensive immigration reform as well. The president must help Americans understand who stands in the way.
But he should not stop there. Global corporations have squirreled nearly $2 trillion abroad to avoid paying taxes here at home. The private wealth of individuals secreted in nominally offshore tax havens is estimated credibly to total some $21 trillion.
We are not making investments vital to our future — in universal preschool and child nutrition, in high quality schools, in affordable college, in basic infrastructure from roads to airports to the electric grid vital to our economy. Most Americans struggle with wages that aren’t keeping up with costs and fear that more spending will lead to more taxes. But the president should make it clear. We can invest in our future if the rich and the multinationals pay their fair share of taxes. Billionaires should pay a higher tax rate than their secretaries. Huge multinationals should not pay a lower tax rate than small businesses. Obama should announce a range of executive initiatives to crack down on tax avoidance and challenge the Congress to join him in doing so.
Lift the Children
One in four American children is born into poverty. This “birth lottery” should not determine their fate. We must act to give every child the opportunity to learn, to fulfill his or her potential. This is a moral imperative — and an economic necessity. This country will not thrive unless the poorest children — disproportionately children of color — have the opportunity to develop.
President Obama has proposed a program to enlist the states in providing universal pre-K, one of the most cost effective investments that can be made in children. But he should go further than that. Detail what must be done in the early years — from conception to six-years-old — to ensure that every child comes to school ready to learn. Level with Americans how much this will cost. And detail where the money will come from — from ending wars abroad, from taking on special interests like the drug lobby that forces Medicare and Medicaid to pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, from ending subsidies to big oil, from fair taxes described above. Challenge the better angels of the American people and they will respond.
We Are in This Together
The reality is that we all do better when we all do better. America’s economy worked best when the broad middle class was created, and we all — poor, middle class and rich — grew together. For the 30 years coming out of World War II, the economy grew faster, the middle class expanded, the poor did better — and the rich prospered. Over the last 30 years, however, only the few have benefitted, while income for working people lost ground. With growing inequality, the economy witnessed speculative booms and busts, with ever-harsher downturns and ever-slower recoveries. We cannot have a healthy and growing economy without rebuilding the middle class and lifting the impoverished.
President Obama will face entrenched and powerful resistance to whatever he proposes. Republicans have blocked all measures to create jobs, even as they blame the president for the bad economy. What is vital now is for the president to rise above this partisan strife — and to help Americans understand that it does not have to be this way.