Barack Obama appeared at his first press conference as the president-elect of the United States on a day of sobering economic news. Just hours earlier, the Department of Labor had reported that 240,000 American jobs were lost in October, bringing the unemployment rate to 6.5 percent — the highest rate in 14 years. And General Motors, the hobbled giant of American manufacturing, was announcing that it might not have enough money to make it through the end of the year.
Though his 20-minute appearance offered few details regarding specific plans, Obama acknowledged the fact that, “We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime…” So it was not surprising that the president-to-be would surround himself with a few dozen economic wingmen and women, as well as his new chief of staff — Clintonite neoliberal Rahm Emanuel.
Most of the advisors who stood with the senator who on January 20 will assume responsibility for an economy in crisis were more in Emanuel’s investment-banker, free-trader mold than that of the tens of millions of workers and farmers who elected Obama as an agent of change. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was to the side of the stage. Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker was just behind Obama. Another former treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers, was in the room and perhaps in the running for a top spot in the administration.
But not everyone on stage stands on the wrong side of the equation.
It was reassuring to see two faces in the crowd of Obama’s counselors on questions of markets, bailouts, unemployment and trade who actually understand that the Democrat was elected by Main Street not Wall Street.
Standing to one side of the President-elect was David Bonior, the former congressman from Michigan who clashed frequently and unapologetically with both Bill Clinton and George Bush on trade policy. Bonior, one of the truest allies of organized labor ever to gain a leadership role in Congress, has continued to work closely with unions — especially those in the manufacturing sector — since leaving the House. Going into the 2008 election season, he aligned himself with the campaign of John Edwards. While it is true that Edwards turned out to be something of a disappointment as a candidate — and as an individual — he was more right on economic issues than any of the other contenders. And it is reassuring, indeed, to see that he is in the room as discussions about an Obama administration’s approach to questions of whether and how to stabilize the domestic auto industry, in particular, and manufacturing in general. Notably, the President-elect signaled his support at the press conference for federal investment in the renewal of the auto industry.
Also appearing with Obama was Robert Reich, the economist who served with some frustration as Secretary of Labor during the early years of Clinton’s presidency. Since leaving the last Democratic administration, Reich has renewed his progressive commitments, steering toward a far sounder position on the issues than many of his former colleagues. During the Wall Street bailout debate of late September, he was a voice of reason who gave meaning to the often vague discussion about how to respond to the needs of Main Street. During his 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts, Reich scoped out a distinctly progressive vision for economic development — emphasizing investment in the renewal of urban areas and the development of new uses for old factories. Long before others were speaking seriously about a green economy — and the industrial policies that might make it work — Reich was talking these ideas up.
There are no guarantees that either Bonior or Reich will have top level roles in an Obama administration — although Bonior has been boomed by some as a contender for Secretary of Labor. But it is hopeful that they are in the room, and on the stage, as Obama begins to answer the question of whether he really will balance the sympathies for Wall Street that were so dominant during the Clinton and Bush years with a new understanding of the need to put the federal government on the hurting folks on Main Street.
“We need a rescue plan for the middle class that invests in immediate efforts to create jobs and provides relief to families that are watching their paychecks shrink and their life savings disappear,” Barack Obama said in his opening statement before taking questions.
If he is serious about that, Obama is going to need to listen a lot more closely to David Bonior and Robert Reich than to Rahm Emanuel and Robert Rubin.