Obama’s Hurdle: America Lacks a Movement for the Middle-Class

by Randy Shaw, 2013-02-12

After his 2012 campaign focused on reviving the middle-class, President Obama’s State of the Union speech will offer specifics on creating jobs and restoring prosperity. But Obama’s agenda faces a steep hurdle: the United States has no grassroots movement pressuring Congress members to address jobs, education, housing and other domestic concerns. The lack of any real grassroots vehicle for pressuring reluctant Republicans to act on jobs and domestic spending is a longstanding problem.

The labor movement prioritizes such issues but has not swayed Republicans on spending in recent years and is understandably focused on immigration reform. Middle-class bread and butter issues are important to progressive groups like MoveOn, but are among a laundry list of competing concerns. Obama’s new Organizing for Action could mobilize in enough Republican House districts to win support for new public investment and job creation, but this is not currently among its top priorities. Absent a grassroots movement, talk about jobs, education and other domestic needs will remain just that---talk.

In 2012, Americans elected candidates committed to reviving the middle-class. But now Congress must be pressured to implement this agenda ---which is hard to do without enlisting people in mobilizing vehicles.

Most Obama voters are disconnected from congressional battles over legislation. That’s why proposals for job creation, raising the federal minimum wage, and increasing affordable housing and education spending fail despite broad public support.

The President, Congressional Democrats, MSNBC talk show hosts and columnists can talk all day about strategies for returning middle-class prosperity. But absent a clear mobilizing strategy---such as that being implemented to pass immigration reform---House Republicans will not be moved.

Building a Movement for Middle-Class

Since most Americans identify as “middle-class,” this constituency’s political weakness is curious but easy to understand. Programs that require employers to raise wages or increase benefits face major corporate opposition, and plans for increased public investment to create jobs are opposed as “budget busters.”

Rarely do we see a major mobilization around a specific budget proposal to aid the middle-class. Even a rise in the federal minimum wage (a paltry $7.25 per hour), an issue that should be easy to rally around given the self-interest of millions impacted, does not see national mobilizations.
Labor unions helped build the middle-class and brought us the weekend. But labor cannot get enough House Republican votes to pass a minimum wage hike or virtually any public investment measure.

So how does Obama get the House and Senate Republican votes he needs to implement any of his plans to revive the middle-class?

It can only happen with the full mobilization of Organizing for Action (OFA).

Organizing for Action’s Role


OFA did not include job creation or restoring middle-class prosperity among its three key priorities (gun control, immigration reform, and climate change), but Obama needs it to shift course. Recent developments on the other three issues all argue for OFA making middle-class revitalization its top priority.

First, gun control will be resolved soon, leaving capacity for other issues. Second, so many groups and skilled activists are mobilizing around immigration reform, and Republicans have become more supportive, that OFA’s resources are less needed. Third, growing support for the February 17 nationwide protests against the Keystone Pipeline show that OFA is not needed to build a movement against climate change.

OFA is the only vehicle capable of avoiding past failures in getting Republicans to support job creation and public investment. And for President Obama, who sounds truly committed to making the restoration of the middle-class the signature of his presidency, it only makes sense to use his former campaign vehicle to achieve this goal.

We will soon know whether Obama’s State of the Union proposals to help the middle-class will be backed by a powerful movement or will instead simply used to help defeat Republicans in the 2014 elections. Past experience shows the limits of this latter strategy, and that a movement to help the middle-class is equally essential when Democrats control Congress.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.