Washington, DC – Last week as I sat in a live TV audience before President Obama, a recent graduate posed a question. Struggling to pay interest on student loans without a job, disappointed at having to move back home, and doubtful about affording a future home and family, the man described his generation’s rapidly dissipating faith in the administration.
He then asked Obama pointedly, “Is the American dream dead?”
A relatively new realization for many, the middle class American dream has in fact long been in jeopardy.
The question, posed to the president Sept. 20, revealed the expectation among some that Obama can restore it, inevitably coupled with frustration that he hasn’t succeeded in doing so already.
Such desires are understandable, but nonetheless ignorant to longstanding trends that have brought about the dramatic rise of America’s economic inequality and the precipitous decline of its middle class.
To comprehend its condition in 2010, it is necessary to re-visit 1980, when a weak economy and a hostage crisis in Iran helped Ronald Reagan win a landslide electoral victory. The support he garnered from blue-collar, previously Democratic voters, dubbed “Reagan Democrats,” was significant: In winning them over to the Republican side, he realigned American politics and sounded the death knell for the New Deal Coalition that expanded the middle class through the passage of Social Security, the GI Bill, Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Pell Grant, and much else.
Despite Reagan’s popularity, the benefits of his supply-side economic policies failed to “trickle down” to the workers who have, over the years, come to often favor his political party at the polls. In 1980, the take of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans stood at 9 percent.
By 2007, it had risen to 23.5 percent. This dramatic consolidation of wealth was highlighted by the president, who pointed out that in 2009, amidst the Great Recession, each of America’s 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers took home an average of $1 billion.
Our nation’s yawning wealth gap, spawned in part by the bankrupt ideology of Obama’s fiercest critics on the right, has created a chasm into which the middle class continues to fall.
Obama hinted at the irony of an electorate that frequently votes against its own class interests when he told his audience last week that he personally stands to benefit from the renewal of the Bush tax cuts which he now seeks to abolish. His opposition, part of the first Oval Office effort in nearly a decade to boost the diminished prospects for America’s middle class, is commendable.
The current era of Democratic leadership on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue has yielded real benefits for working Americans that include a higher minimum wage, the guarantee of health insurance, protection from predatory lenders and federal student financial aid reform.
Yet to expect the president to reverse a 30-year trend, or to reject his congressional allies on the grounds that he hasn’t transformed our country and its capital city during his 21 months in office, is every bit as unfair as the injustices that now enrage voters.
Flowing from both ends of the political spectrum (Jon Stewart recently told Bill O’Reilly that he is “saddened” by Obama), such sentiment fails to grasp the magnitude or historical context of the challenges at hand.
The profound confusion over whom and what is responsible for the American dream falling out of reach shouldn’t obfuscate the frustrations its elusiveness has generated among voters.
Indeed, this frustration is clearly justified.
However, the anger directed at the president and his party is deeply misplaced. Largely a consequence of discredited policies, the middle class’ decline has been three decades in the making; an informed perspective suggests its restoration may take just as long.
Rennie Silva, a native of Florence, MA, is a graduate student in international security and economic policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. He can be reached at Rennie.Silva@gmail.com.