Every generation has its moment where an older politician brings the fire and brimstone and plays cultural Moses....
Because it was Labor Day, President Obama had some kind words for unions in his speech at the GM plant parking lot in Detroit.
He praised organized labor for "the work you've done that helped build the greatest middle class the world has ever known."
"I know it's not easy when there's some folks who have their sights trained on you," he said. "So when I hear some of these folks trying to take collective bargaining rights away, trying to pass so-called 'right to work' laws for private sector workers--that really means the right to work for less and less and less . . . I want everybody here to know, as long as I'm in the White House, I'm going to stand up for collective bargaining.'
Obama even mentioned the huge protests in Madison, Wisconsin, and Columbus, Ohio, where the right to collectively bargain was on the line--protests from which he was notably absent.
Flash back to that 2007 campaign speech in which Obama declared:
"And understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll will walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner."
"Guess he still can't find those shoes," a labor activist in Madison quipped when the White House released the schedule for Obama's summer swing through the Midwest--in which he neatly bypassed both Columbus and Madison.
Still, foreshadowing his big jobs speech this Thursday, the President had some good turns of phrase.
"We've gone through a decade where wealth was valued over work, and greed was valued over responsibility," he said.
He highlighted his Administration's successes: chief among these, the turnaround of the U.S. auto industry--the bailout that worked.
He talked about jobs, of course. But he didn't even mention the $825 billion stimulus of 2009.
According to the A.P. his jobs proposal on Thursday will be far, far less ambitious.
How could it be otherwise? The President just finished making a debt ceiling agreement with Congressional Republicans that makes it impossible to significantly increase spending.
Faced with 9.1 percent unemployment, he will call for extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits, creating some new tax incentives for employers--even allowing companies to keep more profit from overseas business if they agree to bring some jobs home. He plans to set up an "infrastructure bank" that uses federal seed money but mainly funnels private investment to pay for road and bridge construction. If the more progressive voices in the Administration get their way, including Joe Biden, there might even be a $50 billion school construction project.
All in all, it's a far cry from the big stimulus and job creation effort the country needs to turn the economy around.
As Obama went over his record of achievements in office to the union crowd in Detroit, he told working America, "Everything we've done, it's been thinking about you."
That might be, but listening to the President's own list, the results are not so inspiring:
Middle class tax cuts (He called them the biggest in history--but how helpful is that if there are no jobs?)
Financial reform (true, there are some valuable new checks on the credit card industry, but the President's claim that he "ended the days of taxpayer bailouts" for the big banks sounds unlikely given how little enforcement Wall Street has had to endure.)
Education reform (No Child Left Behind version 4.0--see more on Obama's mixed message to teachers below.)
Health care reform--because "every family in America should have affordable, accessible health care." (Unfortunately, they still don't.)
Obama has accomplished some things:
"We said young adults without insurance should be able to stay on their parents' plans. We got that done for you."
But the big picture looks bleak.
The President has tied his own hands with the debt ceiling deal. He has ceded far too much ground to the far right in his dealings with Congress.
On Labor Day, and in campaign speeches, he is an advocate for the right to bargain. But when he gets to the table, he gives away the store.
Obama's mixed message to his base was on full display when he talked about teachers who "agree to reforms in how schools are run at the same time as they're digging into their pockets to buy school supplies for those kids."
Living in Madison, Wisconsin, where the state just made the biggest cut to public schools in history and teachers just took a whopping pay cut, it's hard to decide how to process Obama's simultaneous advocacy for union-weakening "reforms" and his sympathy for teachers who are taking the brunt of the push to destroy public education.
The reason teachers put up with all this, Obama said in his speech, is "because they know something that those who seek to divide us don't understand: We are all in this together. That's why those crowds came out to support you in Madison and in Columbus. We are one nation. We are one people. We will rise and we will fall together."
Not to sound too divisive, but I think we'd prefer to rise.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wisconsin Recalls: Ds 2, Rs 0."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter