If you want to understand the coming intra-party battles on economic issues between progressive Democrats and their moderate colleagues—which will no doubt bleed into the 2016 Democratic presidential primary—Senator Elizabeth Warren’s keynote speech to an AFL-CIO conference on Wednesday might be your best blueprint.
First, let’s note the political moment: President Obama is visiting an auto manufacturing plant in Detroit this week, where he will be “highlighting the workers in the resurgent American automotive and manufacturing sector,” as the White House press office billed it. Then he travels to Phoenix to give a speech “on how the recovering housing sector has helped restore wealth and economic security to millions of middle-class families.”
Obama’s economic message, in short: everything’s going great. It is this argument that Warren took singular aim at Wednesday.
She didn’t call out Obama directly, but based her speech around a December Politico magazine article titled “Everything is Awesome!” (When a politician spends thirty minutes publicly fisking a Politico article, that’s a pretty big clue he or she is trying to rattle the Beltway narrative.)
The author, Michael Grunwald, points to a lot of positive economic indicators like GDP growth, the falling unemployment rate, cheap gas prices, low inflation and reduced deficits. He acknowledges that “many Americans are still hurting” and mentions “stark inequality” in passing, but the article is basically a big hand-wave to those issues. As he dings “chronic complainers” on the left and right, Grunwald concludes that, at the end of the day, “things in the U.S. do look rather awesome.”
Warren politely agreed with the broad points, and gave the Obama administration “credit for the steps they’ve taken to get us here.” Then she went on to dismantle the article’s entire premise. “Despite these cheery numbers, America’s middle class is in deep trouble,” she said.
Her argument was that while individual indicators are looking up, there is a structural problem in the American economy that’s only getting worse. “When I look at the data here—and this includes years of research I conducted myself—I see evidence everywhere about the pounding that working people are taking. Instead of building an economy for all Americans, for the past generation this country has grown an economy that works for some Americans.”
She cited familiar stats about how wages flattened out in the early 1980s while profits grew, and that expenses grew as well: she noted Americans are paying far more for mortgages, health insurance and tuition than they did thirty years ago. Warren described how quite literally 100 percent of the income gains in the past thirty-two years went to the top 10 percent of earners.