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Obama’s ‘Middle-Class Economics’ Has To Be About Fairness And Prosperity

Memo Pad Politics

Obama’s ‘Middle-Class Economics’ Has To Be About Fairness And Prosperity


The fairer “middle-class economics” policies described in the State of the Union are also the right ones to help the economy grow.

In coining the new term “middle-class economics” and linking it to raising wages and taxing the rich and Wall Street to put money in the pockets of working families, President Obama used his State of the Union address to ask the public that most potent of political questions: “Which side are you on?” And as Republicans say no to improving wages and making college more affordable in order to defend the super rich, Americans will get a clear answer. That’s a sure win for Democrats.

But the president’s explanation of middle-class economics downplayed an important part of the story: it’s not just about fairness, it’s about how we create prosperity.

With the term “middle-class economics,” the president is creating a contrast between economic programs aimed at boosting the middle class and the Republican agenda of shrinking government and lowering taxes for corporations. But Obama’s use of the term missed an opportunity to drive home to the American public that middle-class economics is not just about fairness, but also about moving the economy forward.

Obama defined middle-class economics as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” That is one of the president’s favorite phrases. But for all its appeal, it does not explain how middle-class economics drives economic progress and increases wealth. He fails to replace the Republican story that cutting government, taxes, and regulation are the keys to economic growth.

The president actually included such an explanation of what drives the economy in his 2013 State of the Union address, when he said: “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.”

Democrats need to firmly claim both the grounds of fairness and prosperity. As I recently wrote, “The policies that do the most to bolster fairness are in fact the most powerful policies to move the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity.”

This is an easy case to make, as it’s true for most of the policies in the president’s middle-class economic agenda.

To take just one example, raising the minimum wage is not just about basic fairness for low-wage workers. Raising wages is about creating economy-boosting jobs instead of economy-busting jobs. When wages are raised, workers have more money to spend—essential when 70 percent of the economy is made up of consumer spending.

The president’s tax proposals are also about more than just the unfairness of a tax code riddled, as he said, “with giveaways the super rich don’t need, denying a break to middle-class families who do.” His proposed taxes on risky bank speculation move that money to invest in vital infrastructure. When he proposes raising taxes on the rich, who already have more money than they can spend, and using those funds to make community colleges more affordable, he’s putting that money into the economy and investing in people’s skills to contribute to economic progress.

Fairness is a very powerful American value. That’s why the most successful Democratic candidates in 2014 made it clear that they were on the side of working families against Wall Street.

But the reason that fairness is so powerful is because of the contrast between the few with vast wealth and what Americans most want, to be able to care for and support their families. We value prosperity and security. That is why it is essential that Democrats can tell a clear story about how we move the economy forward. Middle-class economics is about more than fairness – it’s about how working families and the middle class drive the economy.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: President Barack Obama delivers the State of The Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)



  1. Frank KIng January 22, 2015

    Henry Ford declared his support for middle class progress by paying his workers a fair wage so they can buy his products thereby making the system work for everybody–business, stockholders and employees. This process was abandoned with the dolt, Reagan, and his ‘trickle down” economics that created a fiscal mess that his Vice President and his advisors declared it to be “voodoo”. The right wing has used it as a guiding principle to increase the wealth of their cronies at the expense of the middle class that has brought us to this sorry state of affairs in America today. Money has been sucked out of the economy and into the hands of the rich, and the right wing plan is working for a minority of the population. Reagan’s boondoggle has come to fruition. It is the old conservative belief that the poor have too much money and the wealthy never have enough. With a return to power of the remnants of the last right wing bunch that created the mess at home and abroad we suffer with today, the misery will continue for the American people who seem to enjoy it because they sent more of them back to DC to continue their mischief. Beware “The Ides of March” the right wing is about to do what they do best–Deep recessions/depressions.

    1. Dave January 22, 2015

      You forgot to mention the part about Henry Ford, where when he paid those employees $5.00 part of that was a bonus that had came with a persons character requirements and was enforced by Socialization Organization. They had a committee that would visit the employees homes to ensure that they were doing things the “American way”.


      1. Frank KIng January 23, 2015

        The same approach was happening in the coall/steel industry in the early part of the 20th century–patches for the workers, rent to the company, purchase only at the company store, continuing strife over wages and hours, and if you are injured or maimed or die in a mine accident your family had to remove themselves and their possessions from company property. Nothing more than Chattels.. The point is that a period of enlightenment occured in industry that realized the fact the putting purchasing power in the hands of workers stimulated the economy. Since money has been sucked out of the economy and placed in the hands of a few, the middle class has been abandoned for greed and profit that reflect early 20th century conditions. The right wing presents the argument that the poor and the middle class are better off than any other in the same class around the world. However, they did work to accumulate some possessions, but those opportunities have become less available with the current course of events and the economy still in a state of malaise for many and a government willing to let in continue in disregard to the best interest of the nation.

      2. ralphkr January 23, 2015

        And the real reason, Ford raised their pay was so he could cut back on the rapid turnover of employees. Before the pay increase employees were moving from factory to factory which resulted in a large cadre of trainers and a high percentage of unskilled employees but after he raised the pay to so much higher than other factories the employee turnover dropped to close to nil.

  2. Hima Layan January 23, 2015

    Obama’s primary war is against the Constitution of these united states.

  3. Dominick Vila January 23, 2015

    The most amazing part of what is happening involve the perplexing conclusions reached by about one third of Americans. How can anyone who is aware of the fact that outsourcing, automation, new technologies, and inadequate education are displacing or making it almost impossible for a large segment of our population, oppose initiatives such as investing in infrastructure to create jobs and ensure we don’t fall behind on the global stage, how can anyone with a minimal amount of compassion and a rudimentary knowledge of economics oppose raising the minimum wage to half of what other industrialized nations have established as a wage standard? Why do they oppose investment in education to ensure all Americans have a chance to succeed at a time when a college degree is an absolute necessity to qualify for a high paying job? Instead of focusing on how to ensure proposals such as those mentioned above are efficient and cost effective, many of our elected officials immediately respond with childish rhetoric, threats, unfounded constitutional claims, breaks in traditional protocol, and just about a high school bully would do.
    If Republicans in Congress disagree with the proposals put forth by President Obama because they have better short and long term solutions, let’s hear them. Thus far, the only thing we have heard, besides the usual immature insults, is the construction of higher fences and the Keystone pipeline.

    1. dtgraham January 23, 2015

      Good one. There’s my chuckle for the day. Aaah, the Iowa bread bags of compassion and rapport.

      1. Dominick Vila January 23, 2015

        Step aside Wonder Woman, here come the Iowa girls!

  4. Barney Ross January 28, 2015

    Remember when Obama claimed that the earth would begin to heal because he had been elected.


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