President must stay the course on our economic values

When the president addresses the economy in the State of the Union, he needs to offer more than optimism, and I think he will. The conservative House majority is going to reject anything he offers sight unseen — that’s no secret — but that’s no reason for the president not to make a strong case to the country that he understands the problem and has a solution mapped out. Major speeches aren’t for negotiating between two positions — they’re for staking out your position. The president needs to take full advantage of the opportunity to get specific and show his grasp of the challenges that still face us.

The signals the president has been sending in his recent economic speeches and appearances have been very encouraging, and he’ll do best if he keeps on that course. He’s been talking very clearly about the need for fairness, for equal opportunity and for a level playing field. His speech can go further, and it will.

The economic plan he will lay out has to focus first and foremost on sustainable job creation. What does that mean? It means setting government policy that encourages investment in the main support structures of our economy: transportation, infrastructure, public education, quality healthcare, public safety. We can’t rebuild our economy by propping up financial institutions and ignoring the larger issues of income inequality, fewer teachers in schools, crumbling roads and bridges, fewer police and firefighters protecting our communities and a shortage of doctors and nurses that’s reaching a crisis level.

The president knows this, and there have been recent indications that he wants to talk about it. A good State of the Union will engage in the same conversation he’s been having with the country recently and the same conversation people are having around their own dinner tables. Are our children really going to inherit a broken economy? Does Congress understand what it’s like for millions of unemployed and struggling families out there? Are we really going to cut support services like school meals and Medicaid when our own friends and neighbors need them more than ever? The president has to address these fundamental questions straightforwardly and with confidence. Talking around the real problem is not going to reassure anyone and won’t help the administration.

He has to address the partisanship in Congress, and I’m sure he will. He needs to be honest about what’s happening — he’s spent years trying his best to negotiate with a Republican leadership team that has no interest in cooperating, and 2012 isn’t the year they’re going to change course. Pretending otherwise will just prolong the agony. He needs to tell the truth voters already know: when you have one party interested in legislating and one party interested in vilifying, problems aren’t going to get solved. 

He needs to make the case that whatever happens in the election, he sees the situation clearly today and is going to act accordingly. That will go a long way to reassuring voters that sees the same political world they see, which is key to building confidence in the government’s ability to make their lives better.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which I co-chair, introduced the Restore the American Dream for the 99 Percent Act late last year as a marker for where we stand on economic recovery. Creating jobs isn’t a question of new corporate tax breaks or giving more money to the wealthy — it’s a question of federal priorities and making the right investments. The economic engine of this country won’t turn over by itself, at least not in time to help today’s working and soon-to-be-retired families. It needs a jump, and I think the president needs to recognize early on in his speech that Democrats and Republicans simply have different philosophies about what kind of jump is appropriate.

The president needs to embrace the right kind of job creation measures — like the ones in our bill — or we won’t have a starting point to begin the year’s economic conversation. The Beltway pundits expect 2012 to be lost to campaigning and politicking, but I think the American people demand very rightly that Congress stick to its day job and pursue an economic recovery plan that will really work. Writing off the entire year as a lost cause, and telling ourselves recovery can wait until after the election is a recipe for disaster. The president needs to make it clear that a recovery, not just the election, is his top priority, both now and in the future.

Grijalva is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.