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Facing Poor Unemployment, Foreclosure & Bankruptcy Rates, Obama Campaigns on Economy in Lead-Up to Nov. Midterms

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It’s the economy, stupid. As President Obama faces devastating unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates, with no end in sight, he’s begun a ten-week campaign around the country leading up the November midterm elections. We speak with John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, who says Obama should borrow a page from FDR and call for economic justice. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s the economy, stupid. As President Obama faces devastating unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates, with no end in sight, he’s begun a ten-week campaign around the country leading up to the November midterm elections. On Wednesday he’s headed to Cleveland, where he’s expected to unveil a new stimulus package that includes a $200 billion tax break giving businesses an incentive to buy new equipment.

On Labor Day, Obama spoke in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he proposed a $50 billion boost in federal spending to rebuild roads, railways and runways. With the official unemployment near ten percent and the unofficial rate far higher, particularly among young people and communities of color, Obama vowed that his new proposal would create new jobs immediately.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, I am announcing a new plan for rebuilding and modernizing America’s roads and rails and runways for the long term. I want America to have the best infrastructure in the world. We used to have the best infrastructure in the world. We can have it again. I believe this with every fiber of my being. America cannot have a strong, growing economy without a strong, growing middle class and the chance for everybody, no matter how humble their beginnings, to join that middle class. 

AMY GOODMAN: In the midst of his speech, Obama departed from his script to address how his critics on Capitol Hill might characterize him.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That’s been at the heart of what we’ve been doing over these last twenty months, building our economy on a new foundation so that our middle class doesn’t just survive this crisis, I want it to thrive. I want it to be stronger than it was before. And over the last two years, that’s meant taking on some powerful interests, some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time. And they’re not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog. That’s not in my prepared remarks. It’s just — but it’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: While the President was stumping in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold was seventy miles away in his hometown of Janesville at his own Labor Day rally. Feingold, who’s running for a fourth term, is facing competition this time from his Republican challenger Ron Johnson, a millionaire business executive who has never run for public office.

For more, we go to Madison, Wisconsin. We’re joined by John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, author of several books. He maintains the blog “The Beat” at thenation.com.

John, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what’s happening in Wisconsin, actually now seen as a bellwether. Russ Feingold has really not been in danger before, except when he, you know, did his — when he first ran for Senate. 

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, what’s going on in Wisconsin is what’s really going on in most of the Upper Midwest. And that is that while we haven’t necessarily hit quite as high unemployment rates as some other parts of the country, the Upper Midwest has suffered from really severe deindustrialization. We’ve lost a lot of our best jobs in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan. And so, there’s a great deal of discomfort. And that has ricocheted hard against the Democrats. There’s simply no question that President Obama came to Milwaukee on Monday, Labor Day, because he thinks that this is really one of the places where the 2010 election cycle will be decided. Obama was in Milwaukee just two weeks ago. So he’s kind of making this a regular stop. The problem or the great challenge is, though, that what people are really concerned about is that unemployment rate, and frankly, the deindustrialization. And very little of what President Obama said yesterday is necessarily going to inspire quick confidence about bringing those unemployment numbers down. 

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the real unemployment numbers. I mean, when they talk about 9.6 percent, when you’re talking about young people, we’re talking in the range of, what, 35 percent. Communities of color and young people, put that together, we’re talking over 50 percent. 

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah. The unemployment figures that come out at the beginning of every month are a complete fantasy. They were restructured several decades ago to make presidents look better. But the reality is that the Department of Labor does bring out a figure where it includes people who have given up on looking for work, and that’s literally millions and millions of people, as well as people who are severely underemployed. Those are folks who they may work a couple hours a week, maybe ten hours a week, but they don’t begin to have the level of employment that would allow them to support their families or have any kind of security. When you add those numbers in, nationwide the United States has roughly a 17 percent unemployment rate. Now, I want to underline that. Seventeen percent. That’s one in six Americans unemployed. Now, when you take that into your inner cities, into some rural areas, and also when you look at people under thirty, those numbers begin to skyrocket. And the really scary thing, Amy, is that in many communities, including the community where Barack Obama was speaking yesterday, Milwaukee, you have some areas of the city, some areas of the metro, where people have been unemployed at those levels not just for the last two years, but, in some cases, decades of systemic, high unemployment going well into the double digits.

So what we’re really seeing here is a situation where — and it’s not all Barack Obama’s fault, certainly. But we’re seeing a situation where this president is, frankly, facing the long-term concern about a number of patterns in this country that have contributed to unemployment. First off, of course, deindustrialization. We’re literally shutting factories at a regular — at a very steady rate in this country. But second, and I think perhaps just as important, we haven’t begun to think about allowing our older workers to retire at a reasonable time. In most countries in the world, when you get to the mid to late fifties, you’re starting to think about retirement. In the United States, our Social Security system is set up basically to force people to work well into their sixties. Now there’s talk about even putting the retirement age higher. Now what that does is force older workers to stay on jobs, and that creates fewer and fewer openings, especially in hard times, for young workers to start their employment. And so, we’ve got a lot of problems in this country that haven’t been addressed. Barack Obama yesterday talked about a few things that certainly sound good, but it doesn’t begin to get to the core of these long-term unemployment issues. 

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece, John, called “Obama Should Borrow a Page from FDR this Labor Day.” What should he do? 

JOHN NICHOLS: Look, the thing that FDR did, interestingly enough, in the state of Wisconsin two years into his presidency on an almost exactly parallel date was to give one of the great speeches of his presidency. And what he said was, “Look, we’re two years into a new presidency. Times are hard. Things have not improved as quickly as folks want to. But let me explain to you why that is.” And then FDR laid out basically a history lesson, in which he said there has always been a struggle between a privileged few and the great mass of Americans. The 1932 election, Roosevelt said, was a point at which the great mass of Americans demanded change, but the privileged few were going to fight very, very hard. And he really laid out an “us against them” struggle. He made it very, very clear that people had to choose which side they were on.

It was a terrific speech, and it’s the sort of speech, in my mind, that Obama needs to give. He needs to make it clear not just that Republicans are saying no for some sort of partisan reason, but that there is a long-term history of elites in this country saying no to changes that might make for a more equitable economy and, frankly, that might address issues like long-term unemployment. I don’t think President Obama did that yesterday. And to my mind, that was a missed opportunity. 

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, tell us who Ron Johnson is, the Republican opponent to Russ Feingold, his background. The Times quoted him talking recently about Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. 

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. Ron Johnson is a very, very wealthy man who didn’t make all of his money in business. He, frankly, made it by, you know, good family ties. But he is wealthy enough to fund a US Senate campaign. And when the Republicans were looking for an opponent to Russ Feingold, they basically said, “Look, we’re advertising for somebody who will pay for their own campaign.” Ron Johnson has been doing that, to the tune of literally millions of dollars. He basically owns the television airwaves in Wisconsin. Now, the truth of the matter is, he has no electoral experience. That’s certainly not a requirement. Some very, very good people have come up without electoral experience. But he also seems to have extremely limited experience thinking about core issues in the country. He gave a talk the other day in which he essentially said free trade was a great thing and that US companies that were relocating their business to other countries were probably doing a smart thing, that they were basically making choices that made sense from a business standpoint. So he’s basically running for the US Senate as somebody giving a business lecture, you know, on a Thursday morning to a bunch of entrepreneurs, rather than as a — you know, as somebody who’s seriously talking about the core problems. But the reality is that we live in a political system where, if you have the money to buy an immense amount of messaging, you can be very viable.

At the same time, Russ Feingold has been a real maverick politically. And so, he’s broken with the Democratic Party at an awfully lot of turns. And as a result, he hasn’t — he’s never established the sort of, you know, kind of careful politician model that might, in some cases, insulate against this. So it’s a really — it’s going to be a wild and very fascinating race, where you see kind of the worst of, to my mind, big money politics against an old-school maverick who is trying to fight on a lot of ideas. I think it’s going to be a fascinating race. And it will be close, because — less to do with Feingold and Johnson than with the reality that Wisconsin, like a lot of states in the Upper Midwest, is just very, very scared, frightened, if you will, about where the economy is at and where it’s going. And that often creates an opportunity for the kind of old saw of a businessman coming along saying he wants to run the federal government like a business. 

AMY GOODMAN: So you have Russ Feingold, who opposed the President’s decision to expand the war in Afghanistan; voted against bailing out financial institutions in 2008’; opposed Wall Street regulation this year, saying the restrictions didn’t go far enough; did not show up at President Obama’s Racine, Wisconsin, speech; and had this very serious quote where he said, “At the start of this process, I made clear that I had a simple test for financial reform: Will it stop another financial meltdown?” He said, “This bill fails that test. I won’t support legislation that fails to protect the people of Wisconsin from the pain of another economic disaster.” And he said, “I don’t need to be lectured about this issue by people who supported repeal of Glass-Steagall, which paved the way for this terrible recession.” And he didn’t show up yesterday at President Obama’s Milwaukee speech, though he was at his own in Janesville. 

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, look, the reality about Russ Feingold is, is he’s pretty much always gone his own way, be the president a Republican or a Democrat. It’s interesting to me that people are making a big deal about this. In fact, it is Feingold’s style. And he was both in Janesville and, I think, Kenosha, Wisconsin. Now, what’s significant about that is both of the cities where Feingold was yesterday are cities where auto plants have closed pretty much during Barack Obama’s presidency. And one of the things that Russ Feingold has talked about since the beginning of his Senate career is a bad trade policy in this country, the lack of a serious industrial policy in this country, and a real failure of working people. And I think that the significant thing is that he spent Labor Day in communities that are hurting because the economic policies of this country have not been very good to working people. It’s also notable that this week he’ll be — while he couldn’t make it to Milwaukee with the President, he’ll make it to the annual progressive gathering in Wisconsin, Fighting Bob Fest, where at least 10,000 people will gather, with Jim Hightower and others, to say, “Look, Barack Obama may be a nice guy, but we really do need fundamental, progressive reform of our economy.” I think that Feingold believes that. And so, I’m not sure that he wants to bang on the President, but I also am not sure that he’s particularly in agreement with the President on a host of issues. 

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, I want to thank you for being with us. He’s the correspondent from The Nation magazine, maintains the blog “The Beat” at thenation.com, speaking to us from Madison, Wisconsin.

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