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Teachers, parents and students are pushing back against high-stakes testing, over-testing and the fantasy that education is made better by preparing for, conducting and evaluating tests.
As American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says: “The current accountability system has led districts to fixate on testing and sanctions, has squeezed out vital parts of the curriculum that are not subjected to testing, and has sacrificed much-needed learning time. That is not what high-performing countries do, and it is not what the United States should do.”
That’s an increasingly common sentiment, even among former advocates for testing-obsessed initiatives such as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. Diane Ravitch, who served as Bush’s assistant secretary of education, now says: “I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools—or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not—because I always knew children’s test scores are far more complicated than the way they’re being received today.”
How then should we “evaluate” teachers and schools?
The truth is that many measures exist, some structural and some practical.
America asks a great deal of teachers. And while carefully developed and cautiously implemented testing can tell us a little, incidents and events can tell us a lot.
Take, for instance, the response to the winter weather that last week brought the Atlanta area to a standstill. State and local officials—led by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal—neglected warnings and failed to respond appropriately. Thousands of children were stranded overnight in schools, on buses and in firehouses and stores. Teachers and school employees were faced with an unexpected, and in some cases overwhelming, new demand on their time, their energy and their ingenuity. And they rose to it.
There are plenty of tales of humanity and heroism from last week. A cafeteria manager at an Atlanta-area high school made it home and then learned that hundreds of students were stranded at the school. Unable to drive a car on the gridlocked roads, he walked back to the school and prepared 800 dinners. The next morning, he prepared 800 breakfasts. Bus drivers cared for and comforted children.
All the stories mattered. But this one from an Atlanta Journal Constitution article published the morning after the storm stood out:
At Centennial High School in Roswell, about 33 students—most of them with special needs—slept in classrooms or on wrestling mats in the school’s media center after only five out of 50 buses arrived and students relied on their parents to get home.
Fifteen teachers and staff members that work in the special needs program stayed with the children, some of whom are in wheelchairs or require special medication.
For some of the children, it was their first night away from home, and teachers kept worried parents informed through cell phone calls and text photos. One group of teachers walked through the snow to a nearby Kroger to get emergency prescriptions filled, including seizure medication.
Few of them got any sleep, and they’re not sure when or if they’d be able to get home.
“I’d love to go home,” said teacher Traci Coleman. “But this is where I need to be right now. This is like my second family.”
All the students made it home, thanks to teachers and bus drivers and cafeteria workers and custodians.
“That no children died or were even seriously hurt is testament to the caring and resourcefulness of those frontline workers,” noted the Journal Constitution’s Maureen Downey.
That is right. We will always expect more of teachers than just getting children home safely. But the response from teachers like Traci Coleman when the storm hit offers a measure of an essential commitment that will never be measured by standardized testing.
Read Next: John Nichols on Georgia’s austerity storm
There are a lot of reasons Senate majority leader Harry Reid shot down President Obama’s State of the Union request for a congressional grant of fast-track trade promotion authority to negotiate new free-trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Reid has a history of skepticism when it comes to trade deals. He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, permanent normalization of trade relations with China and a host of other arrangements that were favored by Wall Street interests.
Reid has a skeptical caucus. Only one Senate Democrat is on record in favor of granting fast-track authority, which would allow the administration to negotiate the TPP deal without meaningful congressional oversight or amendments. And that senator, Montana’s Max Baucus, is preparing to exit the chamber to become US ambassador to China. Senators who are sticking around, like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren, are ardently opposed.
Yet Reid’s rejection of Obama’s request was not a show of skepticism. It was an expression of outspoken opposition.
The majority leader took his own stand, announcing, “I am against fast track.”
And he took a stand for the chamber, declaring, “Everyone would be well-advised to not push this right now.”
Reid was so firm that some congressional observers declared the president’s initiative to be finished, at least for 2014. That's not certain. The White House will keep pushing for Senate action, as statements from Secretary of State John Kerry and others confirmed. Kerry suggests that Reid's opposition could soften over time—at least to the point of allowing a vote. And the House, where top Republicans favor fast track, could create pressure by acting first on the issue—even in the face of widespread opposition among mainstream Democrats and Tea Party Republicans.
But, make no mistake, Reid put the fast track push on shakier ground, while at the same time confirming the extent that deep doubts about US trade policy are present on Capitol Hill—and across America.
Why did Reid say “no” so firmly, and so quickly?
It has a lot to do with policy.
But it also has to do with politics.
Reid is determined to maintain Democratic control of the Senate in the difficult 2014 election cycle. And he understands that the debate about free-trade policy has evolved to a point where it is a concern not just in traditionally Democratic industrial centers but in rural regions that will play a critical role in determining control of the Senate.
Twenty years ago, when Reid was casting a relatively lonely vote against NAFTA, then-President Bill Clinton could count on a lot of Senate support from farm-state Democrats. In those days, farmers were being told that free-trade pacts would yield tremendous benefits for American agriculture and rural communities.
But it did not work out that way.
Today, there is significant opposition to fast track among farm groups that take their cues from rural America, as opposed to Wall Street. And that matters because rural voters are an important factor in critical Senate contests. Indeed, they could be definitional in states that may decide which party controls the Senate, such as Montana, North Carolina and Iowa. Congressman Bruce Braley, the Democratic front-runner in the race to succeed retiring Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, signed a key letter last year opposing fast track and has termed trade deals that threaten working farmers and rural communities “simply unacceptable.”
The debate about how the United States establishes and enforces so-called free-trade agreements is often portrayed as a fight over the future of industrial workers and the cities where they reside. This is appropriate enough, as there is now a broad sense that Public Citizen Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach is right when she says that race-to-the-bottom arrangements like NAFTA “contribute to income inequality as more middle-class jobs are lost.”
But bad trade policies also harm farmers and rural regions.
It is with this in mind that the National Farmers Union and a number of other farm and rural groups have urged members of Congress to say “no” to fast track. If Congress surrenders a measure of its constitutionally defined authority over trade agreements, TPP negotiations will be conducted behind closed doors and without meaningful congressional input or oversight. Any agreement would be submitted to Congress, but members of the House and Senate could not amend it to reflect the demands of Americans for workplace, environmental or human rights protections.
Nor could they ensure that farmers in the United States and abroad get a fair shake—or that consumers would be empowered with tools such as “country of origin” labeling.
That’s not a wise approach for the people who work the land, or for consumers, as US Senator Tammy Baldwin, a fast-track skeptic, has long argued. One of a number of Democrats elected in 2012 from states where rural votes play a critical role in deciding elections, Baldwin says, “U.S. trade representatives must pursue fair trade—not free trade—which means ensuring greater market access for American agricultural products abroad while protecting America’s farm families.”
For this to happen, however, Congress must retain what Farmers Union President Roger Johnson refers to as “a real say in the process.”
“It is imperative for our negotiators to focus on the huge U.S. trade deficit,” the NFU leader explained. “Just increasing exports, while increasing imports at even faster rates, is a recipe for continued and even larger trade deficits, which have a negative effect on U.S. growth, jobs and our standard of living. Currency manipulation must be effectively dealt with, or any minor advantages gained in other parts of the agreements can be easily and rapidly outweighed by manipulated currency values.”
In addition to the NFU, several other groups that represent working farmers have been pointed in their opposition to fast track, and in their broader criticisms of TPP negotiations. The National Family Farm Coalition, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Rural Coalition/Coalición Rural all signed on to a recent letter opposing fast track. So, too, did the group Family Farm Defenders, who said, “As Congress considers the TPP, we need to express our opposition—not only to convince our elected officials that this will just lead to more economic chaos on top of the current crisis, but to also let our friends across the Pacific know that they are not alone in opposing free-trade deals that are only designed to profit the one percent.”
Trade agreements are broad. They touch on every area of the US economy. They are always announced with great fanfare, and many promises.
But promises are not enough.
There have to be measures of accountability. And those standards are best established in a transparent process that includes Congress and the American people.
“Trade agreements must be a fair deal for all parties—farmers, workers, and consumers, both in the United States and abroad,” says the NFU’s Johnson. “Previous trade deals haven’t lived up to this standard, so Congress should have full opportunity to review and amend provisions of a trade agreement, consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”
That is a logical stance, and one that is well understood outside Washington.
Harry Reid is no fool. He recognizes that using fast track to promote new “NAFTA on steroids” trade agreements is bad policy—and bad politics.
Read Next: John Nichols on why Obama's State of the Union was right on wages, but wrong on trade.
Chris Christie was never going to be the president of the United States. That issue was settled long before gridlock set in on the lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge. The New Jersey governor’s record on the critical measures for any state executive bidding for the presidency in 2016—job creation and economic growth—were dismal, and his positions on economic and social issues were far too conservative to attract swing voters in a country that had already rejected John McCain and Mitt Romney.
What remained uncertain was whether a Republican Party that has not nominated a winning candidate with a name other than “Bush” since the 1980s would gamble on Christie. And that issue is now settled, as well.
Even before The New York Times reported on Friday that former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official David Wildstein, an old friend of the governor who gained his position with Christie’s blessing, has written a letter explaining that it was on “the Christie administration’s order” that access lanes to the bridge were closed—thus gridlocking Fort Lee, a city where the Democratic mayor had refused to endorse the Republican governor’s re-election bid—Republicans across the country were looking elsewhere.
After his re-election last fall, Christie led the Republican pack in national polls and polls from battleground states.
That’s polite newspeak for: Christie’s numbers among those most likely to support him have tanked.
In the Post poll, only 43 percent of Republicans viewed the governor favorably—not that much better than his favorable rating among Americans in general: 35 percent.
The survey found that Christie had sunk to a weak third-place position in the nomination race, with support from just 13 percent of Republican-leaning voters. The candidates who have benefitted most from the governor’s collapse—nationally known Republicans with big names and well-established histories—were soaring. Congressman Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, who is looking a little more like a 2016 contender these days, was at 20 percent. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was at 18 percent.
Worse yet for Christie, his 13 percent support level was barely better than that found for Texas Senator Ted Cruz (12 percent), Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (11 percent) and Florida Senator Marco Rubio (10 percent).
There was a line of analysis that suggested Christie—who after a marathon press conference three weeks ago, in which he tried and failed to explain himself, has pretty much avoided the media—might ride the storm out and get back into contention.
But reality has to be dawning on even the most ardent Christie enthusiasts, now that Wildstein’s lawyer has released the letter claiming that “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference.”
It is too early to say where the inquiries and investigations of the bridge scandal—and all the other scandals that have arisen in its wake—will ultimately end up. Christie's hirelings are still spinning out denials—ripping Wildstein and raging at The New York Times. But it should be clear by now that the sorting out of this governor’s troubles is going to take a very long time. Christie will be fighting not to restore his presidential prospects but to retain his current position. Better than any of the "Christie Knew" and "You're Lying, Gov" headlines of Saturday morning, The Newark Star Ledger summed Christie's mess up best: "If (what Wildstein says) proves to be true, then the governor must resign or be impeached."
This is not the sort of conversation that is had about a credible contender for any office, let alone the 2016 Republican nomination.
And this is why the time really has come to accept that Chris Christie’s brief period as a presidential prospect is absolutely finished.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the Impoverished Republican Poverty Agenda.
Americans are surrounded by examples of the extent to which the austerity compulsion has twisted the thinking of elected officials—December’s budget “compromise” failed to extend unemployment benefits, not just Republicans but many Democrats just voted for a Farm Bill that cuts aid for the hungry, states across the country are proposing to spend revenue surpluses on tax breaks for the rich and Detroit is trying to come up with a plan to avoid having to sell off its art museum.
But there will be no better example of how the austerity mindset warps the understanding of what government can and should be doing than the explanations Georgia officials are peddling for their failure to respond in a rational manner to warnings that their state was about to experience a winter storm. Instead of taking reasonable precautions such as closing schools, preparing major thoroughfares and highways, ordering truckers to use tire chains and imposing basic traffic-control measures, they allowed a nightmare scenario to play out.
With reports of deaths, thousands of stranded motorists, children stuck on school buses and trapped in schools, and commerce ground to a half, the Associated Press was describing the Atlanta metro area as “Exhibit A for how a Southern city could be sent reeling by winter weather that, in the North, might be no more than an inconvenience.” But what happened in Atlanta has more to do with the austerity mindset than snow and ice.
Weather forecasters did their job; the National Weather Service warned a day before the storm that snow on Atlanta-area roads “will make travel difficult.” And at 3:30 am Tuesday, the weather service issued a winter storm warning that cautioned against travel except in emergencies.
Yet Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed took few of the precautionary steps that might be expected. Instead, they both attended a Tuesday afternoon event honoring Reed as the “2014 Georgian of the Year.” At the same time the politicians were celebrating, the roads were beginning to gridlock into a mess that would eventually bring the region—“home to major corporations and the world’s busiest airport”—to a standstill.
Why? Deal first attempted to blame the forecasters, suggesting that it was unclear where exactly the “unexpected storm” would hit. But the storm wasn’t unexpected or unpredicted. It is almost always unclear precisely where storms will hit. The job of officials is to err on the side of caution, as lives and livelihoods are at stake.
Unless, of course, those officials are operating with an austerity mindset in which their biggest fear is not chaos but accusations that they might expend dollars that do not need to be spent—or that the officials are somehow failing to make the service of big business their highest priority.
“I would have acted sooner, and I think we learn from that and then we will act sooner the next time,” announced Deal, who made a similar promise after failing to prepare for a 2011 storm. “But,” the governor added, “”we don’t want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we had been wrong, y’all would have all been in here saying, ‘Do you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economies of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses all over this city and this state?’ ”
Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about the role of government. But when we have politicians like Deal, who is up for re-election this year, “explaining” a failure to make basic emergency preparations by saying they didn’t want to be accused of harming commerce, the austerity mindset has taken hold. And it is not just trumping common sense, it is failing citizens, communities and the very businesses that misguided politicians like Nathan Deal say that they seek to serve.
Read Next: Allison Kilkenny on austerity and school budget cuts.
President Obama wants 2014 to be a “year of action” in which the country finally begins to address a wealth gap that has made the term “income inequality” the catchphrase of the moment. And he framed the crisis well in his fifth State of the Union address:
Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by—let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.
But Tuesday night was not the first time that he explained the problem in the right way.
He did precisely that six years ago—speaking specifically about inequality and declaring that government had an ability and a responsibility to address it aggressively and unapologetically.
Obama’s ability to identify the crisis, and his willingness to speak in blunter terms than his political opponents about its repercussions, got him elected president. By a landslide.
Now, after a year of wrangling with an uncooperative Congress and at the start of a critical mid-term election year, Obama is trying to renew the political calculus that convinced Americans he was the right leader for the country—and that it was right to provide him with the solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that would allow him to turn rhetoric into action.
As he prepared what could well be the most important State of the Union address of his presidency, most polls suggested that the American people were less confident in Obama, and less inclined to give him the Congress he needs to govern in the final years of his second presidential term.
So can this speech restore the political fortunes of Obama and his party?
It’s going to be difficult, not just because second terms are always challenging, and not just because his political foes have no qualms about gridlocking government if they think it will benefit their electoral ambitions.
There is also the reality that, while he has returned to popular themes and displayed his usual grasp of the issues, the president’s State of the Union message was muddled. Like other presidents before him, Obama sacrificed the opportunity to focus like a laser beam for the option of reading a laundry list. And some of the items on that laundry list undermined rather than enhanced his “year of action” theme.
That was especially true when, against the pleas of the progressive base he must energize, Obama devoted a section of his speech to promoting a free-trade agenda that is as unpopular as it is flawed.
So it was that, what might have been a politically transformational moment, ended up as something less than that.
To be sure, Obama got a lot right.
He told Congress, bluntly, that he would veto a new sanctions bill that might threaten negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” said Obama.
He spoke up for sound environmental and energy policy:
The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.
He renewed the call for comprehensive immigration reform, saying that “[if] we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement—and fix our broken immigration system.”
He spoke, in detail and convincingly, for the extension of long-term unemployment benefits that expired at the end of last year. “Congress,” he demanded, with appropriate passion, “give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance. They need our help, but more important, this country needs them in the game.”
And he said the right thing, particularly on the issue of raising the minimum wage:
Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about twenty percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. [Iowa Senator] Tom Harkin and [California Congressman] George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. It’s easy to remember: ten-ten. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.
Going big on the minimum wage offers a measure of the president’s seriousness when it comes to making income inequality an issue in 2014.
It’s a winning move politically: the president was spot-on when he said, “Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.” Aiming to get the minimum wage over $10 an hour—in several steps over several years—is far from radical. Indeed, if the goal is to assure that Americans who put in forty-hour weeks can climb out of poverty, a $15-an-hour wage is closer to the mark. But breaking the double-digit barrier has meaning, practically and politically, and focusing on it frames the 2014 debate in the right way.
The president has used previous State of the Union addresses to talk about increasing the minimum wage. In a “year of action,” good words must be linked with good deeds.
Obama recognizes that if he hopes to rally the American people to put pressure on a dysfunctional Congress to begin raising wages—and to get serious about increasing support for manufacturing, investing in infrastructure and generally being useful—his actions must be as bold as his statements. So the White House announced Tuesday morning that Obama would issue an executive order to increase the wages of new federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour. That’s a big deal. According to the National Employment Law Project, three in four workers in service-industry federal contract jobs earn less than $10 an hour—and survey research confirms that the overwhelming majority of them have trouble paying their bills.
With his executive order, Obama aided contract workers. He sent an important signal to private-sector employers, especially those in the fast-food and retail sectors where workers have been organizing for better wages. And he did something else. To the immense frustration of Republicans in the House and Senate, he declared, “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Making those commitments—to fight for a big hike in the federal minimum wage and to use executive orders to act on behalf of workers who do not have enough champions in Congress—was a show of strength.
That provided Obama with an opening to change the discourse.
Unfortunately, he narrowed that opening by putting too much time and energy into promoting a free-trade agenda about which most Democrats in Congress have raised objections. There was nothing robust or exciting about Obama’s free-trade pitch. There was something entirely predictable, almost routinized about it. But like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Obama embraced an orthodoxy that no longer makes economic or political sense.
After arguing for “new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific,” Obama told Congress, “We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority.”
It is no secret that the president wants to cut deals to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping new “NAFTA on steroids” trade pact with eleven Asian and Latin American countries. Nor is it any secret that he would like to clear the way for that agreement by getting Congress to give him the fast-track trade promotion authority that allows negotiations to go forward without congressional oversight or amendments that might address labor rights, human rights, environmental and development concerns.
The problem is that the constituencies Obama is hoping to rally in support of initiatives to address income inequality have come to associate multilateral arrangements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement with the collapse of industries, the shuttering of factories and the elimination of hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs that once sustained middle-class families. The loss of those jobs—in combination with the related weakening of industrial unions and the depression of wages—is well understood to have contributed mightily to the growth of income inequality.
By candidate Barack Obama.
In February, 2008, Obama was on his way to defeating Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The pair would square off in Wisconsin. Obama was determined to win on the basis of superior economic stances. So he went to a General Motors plant in Janesville, a community that had already suffered more than its share of downsizing, outsourcing and offshoring. (Janesville would suffer even more when, in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency, GM initiated the closure of the plant where Obama spoke.)
“We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control,” Obama told the assembled workers. “It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington—the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it’s produced.”
Obama traced the roots of that growing inequality to “a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who’ve seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear; workers whose right to organize and unionize has been under assault for the last eight years.”
Obama made the right connections on that winter day in Wisconsin six years ago, anticipating the pile of studies that tell us free trade is not working. The Peterson Institute for International Economics attributes close to 40 percent of the growth in US wage inequality to trade policies of recent decades. The Economic Policy Institute recently published an analysis headlined: “China trade drives down US wages and benefits and eliminates good jobs for US workers.” The US Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that two-thirds of displaced manufacturing workers who found new jobs in 2012 were hired at substantially lower wages—with most experiencing a 20 percent or greater cut.
Noting that even supporters of past free-trade pacts now acknowledge the role they have played in widening the gap between rich and poor, Public Citizen Global Trade Watch director Lori Wallach reminds us that “economists of all stripes [now] agree that US trade policy has been one of the major contributors to growing US income inequality.”
That’s not a new concept. It’s the one that Barack Obama talked about when he was winning the confidence of Democrats as a candidate in 2008. He distinguished himself from Hillary Clinton by unequivocally stating that “when I am President, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers.”
Now Barack Obama is president. And he is trying once more to win the confidence of Americans, to get them engaged in a serious battle to renew what he described in 2008 as “the promise of America—that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it’s not—when opportunity is uneven or unequal—it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.”
Obama was right six years ago. A president can do a great deal to restore balance and fairness in America—and around the world. He is taking some important steps, on the minimum wage and a host of other issues. But he has to recognize that he cannot restore balance and fairness by proposing new free-trade deals that extend the worst practices of old free-trade deals. To build the confidence that is necessary, and the coalitions that are possible, Obama should in his State of the Union address have done what he did as a candidate and acknowledge “the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it’s produced.”
He didn’t quite get there Tuesday night.
This will make it harder to achieve the “year of action” the president is right to say America desperately needs.
A focus on income inequality? Check.
A call for a big increase in the minimum wage? Check.
An affirmative act to show his seriousness—in the form of an executive order to substantially increase the wages of federal contract workers? Check.
New strategies for job creation in low-income communities? Check.
All the pieces were coming into place Tuesday for President Obama's fifth State of the Union address.
After a tough 2013 in Congress behind him, and with a tough 2014 campaign season ahead of him, all indications—some formally released, some leaked—were that the president was ready to rally progressives for a fight on the economic issues that matter most. And to push back against congressional conservatives on issues ranging from implementation of the Affordable Care Act to the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.
As the clock ticked toward the start of the annual agenda-setting address, it appeared that the president was ready to renew, and perhaps even expand, the coalition of conscience that elected him in 2008 and reelected him in 2012.
Except for the trade thing.
President Obama wants to sign a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with 11 countries in Latin America and Asia. And a lot of multinational corporations are delighted that the deal is shaping up as what Public Citizen Global Trade Watch director Lori Wallach refers to as "NAFTA on steroids." To secure the deal, Obama and his allies want "Fast Track" authority to negotiate the final details of the agreement without significant congressional oversight or the prospect of amendments to protect workers, communities and the environment in the US and the countries with which it trades.
If Obama makes a push for "Fast Track" and the TPP in his State of the Union speech, he will undermine his message about rebuilding a US economy that has been devastated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, most favored nation trading status for China and other trade deals he criticized as a candidate. He will make it harder to build coalitions with traditional allies in the labor, environmental and progressive farming communities. And he will complicate the campaign for control of Congress.
As Wallach explains: "This gets to the major policy collision that only adds the incongruity of the political situation: the TPP would worsen income inequality. Yup, the main theme of Obama’s SOTU has been widely advertised to be his battle against growing American income inequality. But economists of all stripes agree that US trade policy has been a major contributor to growing inequality."
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich confirms the point, writing that: “(This) massive deal [TPP] would further erode the jobs and wages of working and middle-class Americans while delivering its biggest gains to corporate executives and shareholders.”
Thus, while all indications on Tuesday are that Obama wants to give a progressive address about income inequality and the necessary response to it, there are still real concerns about whether this speech will be the one that is needed.
So much so that, on the eve of the address, 550 groups that represent much of the progressive base—precisely the labor, environmental, economic justice and community groups the president will need to refocus the national debate in this critical mid-term election year—signed a letter urging members of Congress to oppose the granting of "Fast Track" authority.
Their message was blunt:
After decades of devastating job loss, attacks on environmental and health laws and floods of unsafe imported food under our past trade agreements, America must chart a new course on trade policy. To accomplish this, a new form of trade authority is needed that ensures that Congress and the public play a much more meaningful role in determining the contents of US trade agreements. Critically, such a new procedure must ensure that Congress is satisfied with a trade agreement’s contents before a pact can be signed and subjected to any expedited procedures.
Listen tonight to what President Obama says about income inequality. His words will be of vital importance.
But listen, also, to what he says about trade policy. His words will tell us a great deal about whether the coalition that he must build will be pulling in the same direction through the rest of 2014.
Presidents cannot always satisfy their supporters. There are times when they can and must part company with portions of their political base. But, on this issue, the base has a point. If President Obama delivers a State of the Union address that muddles the message by promoting failed and unpopular free-trade policies, he will do himself, and the cause of addressing income inequality that he has wisely made his focus, no favors.
When some of the greatest musicians in the world gathered five years ago to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of the musician who inspired them all, Bruce Springsteen told Pete Seeger: “You outlasted the bastards, man.”
And so he did.
Seeger, who died Monday night at age 94, was singing with Woody Guthrie when “This Land Is Your Land” was a new song. And because he meant and lived every word of the oft-neglected final verse—“Nobody living can ever stop me, As I go walking that freedom highway; Nobody living can ever make me turn back, This land was made for you and me”—Seeger was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklisted and sent for a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s to the sidelines of what was becoming an entertainment industry.
But Seeger kept singing “This Land…,” kept writing songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” kept playing a banjo inscribed with the message “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” and kept traveling across the country and around the world—for every cause from labor rights to civil rights to environmentalism to peace.
Before he was convicted in 1961 on contempt-of-Congress charges—for refusing to name the names of the Young Communists and Young Socialists he had organized with and sung for in those heady 1930s and 1940s days of anti-fascist organizing—Seeger acknowledged that “the House committee wished to pillory me because it didn’t like some few of the many thousands of places I have sung for.” But he explained:
I have been singing folksongs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, color, and creed.
That sense and sensibility was stronger than the forces that sought to silence him. The son of privilege who lived for a good bit of time with his dear wife, Toshi, in a cabin that had no running water or electricity but offered an exceptional view of the Hudson River he loved, never lost what Springsteen hailed as a “stubborn, nasty, defiant optimism.” And the radical singer of radical songs about radical notions like loving one another, talking rather than shooting and singing rather than surrendering, lived long enough to have been a best-selling artist in 1950—crooning “Goodnight Irene” with the Weavers—and a Grammy nominee in 2014.
Pete could have been excused for resting on his laurels after his contempt conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court in 1962 and the folk music boom of the 1960s restored his celebrity. But he had already thrown himself into the thick of the civil rights movement, helping young Guy Carawan introduce a variation on an old spiritual for a new movement like “We Shall Overcome.” By 1967, he was upsetting the CBS censors by appearing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and performing his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” with its closing lines: “Every time I read the paper/those old feelings come on/We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on.” It was assumed that Pete was taking a poke at Lyndon Johnson’s march into the quagmire of Vietnam. And, of course, he was doing just that.
So it went. Decade after decade. Singing and agitating and inspiring the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of those who had heard him singing the songs of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1938, or serenading Eleanor Roosevelt in 1944, or accompanying Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1948.The hundreds of Occupy Wall Street activists who joined Seeger on a thirty-five-block march through Manhattan in Octover 2011 knew that he was seventy years older than they were, but he was one of them; indeed, said his friend Gary Davis, when Pete rallied with Occupy he was “seeing his life come to fruition.” It was that understanding of music as art and mission that drew Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Ani DiFranco and Tom Morello and Billy Bragg to the man whose energy and warmth, intellect and integrity they aspired to emulate. “Seeger believed—still believes—that songs can lift people up and inspire them to take the actions necessary to change the world,” Bragg wrote when Pete turned 91, delighting in the fact that Woody Guthrie’s comrade “continues to urge us all to overcome.”
When Springsteen was asked to perform in Washington as part of the celebration of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, he invited Seeger to come along.
If there was a measure of the change that Obama brought to Washington, it came when Seeger stepped off the blacklist to which some on the right were still trying to consign him, and serenaded Obama. Seeger, the resilient rebel who once directed the song “Dear Mr. President” to Franklin Roosevelt, had at 89 outlasted the members of Congress who held him in contempt and the entertainment industry executives who refused him microphones.
Now, as spry and energetic as ever, he ran onto the stage with Springsteen and the band. He had the microphone, and he was singing “This Land Is Your Land.” Without caution or compromise. “I know I want to sing all the verses—all the ones that Woody wrote, even the two that usually get left out,” Pete told Springsteen during the rehearsal.
So it was that the newly elected president of the United States began his inaugural celebration by singing and clapping along with an old lefty who remembered the Depression-era references of a song that took a class-conscious swipe at those whose “Private Property” signs turned away union organizers, hobos and banjo pickers.
Pete Seeger outlasted the bastards.
But he did so much more than that. He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honor, with a progressive vision for the ages and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that “the world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible.”
Read Next: John Nichols’ rememberance of the late farmer John Kinsman.
The roots of today’s outcry against corporate control of just about everything can be traced to the countryside—all the way back to the agrarian populist uprisings that reached their pinnacle with the 1896 presidential campaign of Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan. In the “Cross of Gold” speech that electrified the Democratic National Convention on that year, Bryan declared that “the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day—who begins in the spring and toils all summer—and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain.”
Rejecting the fantasy that prosperity extended from “the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world,” Bryan dared to argue that the great economic, social and political contest “was a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country.”
The clarity that Bryan brought to the discourse was grounded in the frustration of farmers and small-town merchants with the unreasonable demands of distant bankers and grain processors. It transformed American politics, clearing the way for progressive reforms and a New Deal moment in which Franklin Roosevelt would announce: “We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.”
As we celebrated the life and legacy of John Kinsman Saturday in the lovely Holy Family Catholic Church on a snow-covered hill above tiny La Valle, Wisconsin, I thought a good deal about Bryan and Roosevelt and the great populist farm activists of the past—folks like Mary Elizabeth Lease, the great Kansas orator who warned in the 1880s: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master.”
Lease was still alive, still agitating, when Kinsman was born in 1926 on his family’s farm near the village of Lime Ridge, Wisconsin. And Kinsman, with a remarkable yet seldom recognized circle of activists that included Nebraska’s Merle Hansen, built the bridge that carried the populist critique of corporate power through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Kinsman was a dairy farmer—with a herd of thirty-six cows that he grazed on eighty acres—he always introduced himself as such. Yet he was, as well, an epic activist with deep roots in the Catholic social justice tradition and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was a pioneering advocate of the ideals that would come to underpin the international slow-food and food-sovereignty movements, and one of the great global organizers of popular resistance to the economic inequality and injustice that extends from corporate-defined and corporate-driven globalization.
Hailed by Grassroots International as “a pioneer of organic and sustainable farming in the United States and a tireless advocate for global food sovereignty,” Kinsman helped generations of younger activists come to understand the threat that corporate monopoly, oligarchy and plutocracy—words John regularly employed—posed to their health, their livelihoods and their democracy.
Kinsman’s knack for explaining in practical terms how corporate greed threatened sustainable farming, good food, safe water, small farms and small towns—as well as his passionate faith that the struggles of working farmers had to be linked with struggles for labor rights, civil rights and human rights—made him an international figure. As the founder and president of Family Farm Defenders, as the secretary of the National Family Farm Coalition, as a key leader of La Via Campesia, the largest international umbrella organization of farmers, fishers, foresters, hunters, gatherers and indigenous peoples, he was a definitional figure in the framing of a popular response to free-trade economics that placed profiteering above humanity.
It was not uncommon for John to milk cows in the morning and then get on a plane and fly to demonstrate with displaced farmers in Mexico, to sail with Greenpeace, to brief farmers from Mali about fights against Monsanto and the genetic modification of food, or to explain trade policies to the trade unions of Portugal. In 1999, when unions, environmental organizations and civil society campaigners organized in Seattle to block the World Trade Organization’s expansion of the corporate “free trade” model, Kinsman was at the center of everything that happened. Outside a McDonald’s in the city center, thousands of activists cheered as Kinsman and his friend José Bové, the French farm activist and former presidential candidate, distributed fresh cheese from real farms—and then explained how corporatization and globalization of food production threatened the livelihoods of the farmers who produced the safest, healthiest and most delicious food in the world.
That was classic Kinsman. Bringing farmers together with workers and human rights activists, making all the connections and explaining that what is at stake in any trade agreement is more than just money: It is the quality of the food we eat, the water we drink and the lives we aspire to. And he never stopped. In the last months of his life, John was organizing farmers to block the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that President Obama and Republicans in Congress are now advancing. “As Congress considers the TPP, we need to express our opposition—not only to convince our elected officials that this will just lead to more economic chaos on top of the current crisis, but to also let our friends across the Pacific know that they are not alone in opposing free trade deals that are only designed to profit the 1 percent,” he explained. “Those of us in the 99 percent will end up losers if we do not…stop the TPP. We could ALL be winners if we worked together in constructive cooperation for a new global economic system based upon fair trade instead.”
That new system, with greater respect for democracy than corporate power, is still in the making. But when it comes to be, we would do well to remember the farmers like John Kinsman who planted the seeds and nurtured the dream.
Read Next: John Nichols on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
If President Obama uses his State of the Union address to launch a major push for “fast-track” authority to bypass congressional input and oversight on a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, he will need new allies to generate support around the country.
The president won’t be able to look to progressive farm groups. The National Farmers Union is explicitly opposed to using a fast-track approach that would allow trade agreements to move through Congress with limited debate and without amendments.
In fact, if Obama decides to ramp up his advocacy for a free-trade strategy that progressive Americans tend to see as a threat to workers, farmers, the environment, human rights and democracy, he won’t be able to count on many traditional allies to stir up grassroots support in the states. That’s one of the reasons there remains considerable uncertainty about whether the president really will—in a speech that is expected to focus on income equality—spend substantial time talking up a trade agenda that has drawn broad opposition from House and Senate Democrats and so much of his base.
If the president does go all in for the TPP, he will find himself in strange company—with groups that promote policies that critics argue are responsible for the growing gap between a wealthy few and an increasingly impoverished many.
There is, for instance, one group that maintains an extensive network of political connections in states across the country and is enthusiastically on board for “the expedited conclusions and approval of the TPP.”
That group is the American Legislative Exchange Council.
ALEC, the corporate-funded organization that stirred considerable controversy several years ago with its advocacy on behalf of so-called Stand Your Ground gun laws and restrictive Voter ID rules, produces so-called “model legislation” for introduction by conservative state legislators. Last fall, the ALEC board of directors approved and circulated a “Model Policy” that celebrates the TPP and declares that it “will be an impetus for further bilateral and multilateral trade agreements…”
Expanding trade along lines established by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations with China has always been on ALEC’s agenda. The multinational corporations that cover the group’s expenses, and help to define every aspect of its agenda, have long embraced an approach that allows them to move factories and jobs from country-to-country in order to lower wages and avoid labor, environmental and human rights regulations.
ALEC’s model policy on the TPP even makes respectful reference to President Obama and his administration. That’s ironic, as ALEC members have been among the most ardent critics of the president’s policies.
Not long ago, the group published a “State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare.” Yet, ALEC now highlights the Obama administration’s support of the TPP “as one-part of its strategy to increase competitiveness and employment in the United States…”
So ALEC is urging state legislators who have been busy trying to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act to get their states to formally endorse the TPP. The model policy concludes:
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the legislature of [INSERT STATE] call(s) on Congress to support negotiations for a comprehensive, high-standard and ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that will provide a platform for regional trade and economic integration…
ALEC’s International Relations Task Force, which is co-chaired by a representative from Philip Morris International, declares on its webpage that it “promotes both bilateral and multilateral free trade frameworks, initiatives and partnerships.” ALEC has a long history of being at the forefront of fights to sell the trade agenda outlined in the North American Free Trade Agreement and other deals backed by Democratic and Republican presidents.
Indeed, the task force that’s promoting the TPP says, ALEC’s international policy work is persuasive “precisely because our policy directives are backed by our public and private sector members—American state legislators from all 50 states and some of the world’s largest corporations.”
Read Next: Lee Fang on ALEC’s opposition to apartheid divestment.
President Obama’s second inaugural address touched on the reality that the United States has a dysfunctional election system. Describing the nation’s progress, as well as the ways in which the nation needs to progress, the president declared, “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
Obama drew knowing applause when he spoke that truth in January 2013, as he did in November 2012, when just hours after his re-election the president noted that millions of Americans had “waited in line for a very long time” to vote. Then, in an ad lib that got more attention than his prepared remark, the president added: “By the way we have to fix that.”
On Wednesday, the process of fixing the problem—and of moving America a few more steps toward democracy—accelerated. A little.
The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration that Obama appointed last year released a report that recommends:
1. Modernization of the registration process through continued expansion of online voter registration and expanded state collaboration in improving the accuracy of voter lists.
2. Measures to improve access to the polls through multiple opportunities to vote before the traditional Election Day and the selection of suitable, well-equipped polling place facilities, such as schools.
3. State-of-the-art techniques to assure efficient management of polling places, including tools the Commission is publicizing and recommending for the efficient allocation of polling place resources.
4. Reforms of the standard-setting and certification process for new voting technology to address soon-to-be antiquated voting machines and to encourage innovation and the adoption of widely available off-the-shelf technologies.
These are relatively tepid proposals. But they move in the right direction on several fronts. Making it easier to register and vote is important; modernizing registration procedures and expanding early and absentee voting programs, can help with this. So, too, can the improved allocation of resources and technology to assure that every voter in every state has a roughly equal chance to cast a ballot in a timely, respectful and efficient manner.
So the president was pleased with the report. He received it with much fanfare and described the recommendations as “outstanding.”
Obama says that he and his aides will “reach out to stakeholders all across the country to make sure that we can implement” the commission’s report.” The president brings to this work a sense of urgency that is appropriate, reminding Americans that “one of the troubling aspects of the work that they did was hearing from local officials indicating that we could have even more problems in the future if we don’t act now.”
But no one, including the president, should imagine that what the commission has produced is a cure for what ails American democracy.
The commission’s report focuses on technical repairs, and places a great deal of faith in new technologies. That’s not a fresh approach. After the 2000 fiasco in Florida, and the resulting intervention of the United States Supreme Court to prevent a thorough recount—and a thorough review of the failures and abuses of voting systems in the state—there were reports, recommendations and allocations of resources for new technologies.
But there was not a shift in mindset. Indeed, those who would restrict and restrain the franchise stepped up their activism. After the 2010 elections Republicans were put in charge of statehouses across the country. We then saw a wave of new initiatives—many, though not all, of them crafted by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council—to impose restrictive Voter ID requirements, limit early voting and eliminate same-day registration.
The problems that inspired the president’s “we need to fix that” line were not necessarily technical or technological. They were often man-made. And the men who made them are still at work; in 2013, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than eighty bills restricting the right to vote were introduced in more than thirty states.
That figure serves as a reminder that core challenges facing voting in America are not necessarily technological. Americans could vote on paper ballots quickly and efficiently, as do voters in many other countries. And if they did they might well be more confident in the count.
There is an insufficient level of commitment on the part of local, state and federal agencies to creating the infrastructure and the mindset that fosters high-turnout elections.
The United States has an exceptionally low level of voter participation as compared with most developed democracies. In the parliamentary elections of European countries, it is not uncommon to see turnout levels surpass 70 percent, even 80 percent, of the voting-age population. In America, off-year congressional elections attract under 40 percent of the voting age population, and high-stakes presidential elections don’t reach 55 percent.
Why? Because the United States makes it hard to vote.
Unlike other countries that actually try to achieve maximum voter participation, the United States retains a separate-and-unequal electoral infrastructure that rests authority over voting and elections with individual states and their 8,000 local jurisdictions. Instead of making reasoned choices with the purpose of expanding turnout and assuring equal protection, our system leaves democracy to chance.
1. This country schedules elections on Tuesdays, rather than weekends.
2. This country does not make Election Day a holiday.
3. This country does not have a universal system for registering every citizen before his or her eighteenth birthday.
4. This country does not have a universal system for alerting all eligible voters that an election is coming, or for letting them know where and how to vote.
5. This country does not have universal standards for whether those convicted of crimes can vote, or for when and how those who have served their sentences will have their voting rights restored.
6. This country does not have universal standards for who can vote in a primary election, or for whether a run-off election will be held, or for how recounts will be conducted, or for how inconclusive results are to be addressed.
7. This country does not have universal standards for ballot design, or for how to deal with mismarked ballots, or for how to assure that ballots that have been cast are protected against tampering.
8. This country does not have universal standards for the distance one must travel to vote, or for the hours polls are to remain open, or for the set-up and operation of polling places, or for the availability of voting machines and other equipment, or for verifying that votes have been accurately cast and counted.
The list of gaps in the structures of American democracy is long.
The authors of the report by the president’s commission recognize the disjointed nature of election oversigfht, and they seek to address some of those gaps. But they do not begin to address all of them.
That does not mean that the commission’s report should be neglected. The recommendations challenge many of the assumptions made by Republican governors and legislators in recent years, and they should be used to encourage a process of improving the voting systems of the United States.
Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center is right when she says, “The Commission’s recommendations are a significant step forward. They make clear that nationwide our voting systems have common problems, which can be fixed with common, national solutions. Especially important is the consensus that we need to modernize voter registration, make early voting available to all Americans, and put systems in place so no one waits longer than 30 minutes to vote. These will be the new benchmarks against which future elections will be judged.”
The recommendations of the commission ought not, however, to be seen as an “end of the journey” to democracy.
If we are realistic about the challenge of remaking America as a nation with high-turnout elections and truly representative democracy, what the commission has produced is barely a beginning.
A report is not enough. Recommendations are not enough.
What’s required is a teaching moment, led by the president and serious members of Congress, by reformers, academics, media and citizens of good will. And it ought to have as its goal a reshaping of how the United States understands voting and voting rights.
The truth is that, on too many levels, the United States does not respect the right to vote. Nor does it adequately recognize the need to have votes counted and to genuinely reflect voting results in the governance of communities, states and the nation.
Too much is left to chance. That has been made obvious in recent years, not just by the myriad state-based battles over restrictive Voter ID laws but by the US Supreme Court’s mangling of the Voting Rights Act.
More than a report is needed, more even than a new version of the Voting Rights Act—although the proposal made recently by Congressmen John Conyers, D-Michigan and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, is a reasonable and needed step in the right direction.
What is ultimately required is an absolute guarantee of the right to vote and the right to have that vote counted. That affirmation should be added to the United States Constitution, in an amendment along the lines of the one proposed last year by Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin.
SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
These are proper benchmarks. When the right to vote is guaranteed, when it is constitutionally established as fundamental, that is a strong place of beginning for establishing the infrastructure of genuinely functional and genuinely representative democracy.
“The right to vote is too important to be left unprotected,” explains Pocan. “At a time when there are far too many efforts to disenfranchise Americans, a voting rights amendment would positively affirm our founding principle that our country is at its strongest when everyone participates.”
Read Next: The Nation's Ari Berman on The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.