Following is commentary by Greg Anrig, Vice President for Policy, The Century Foundation.
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Many progressives find President Barack Obama to be a somewhat frustrating leader for reasons his State of the Union address exemplified. He systematically elides fundamental ideological divides. His references to social insurance programs, which represent some of the progressive movement’s greatest accomplishments, invariably focus on their costs rather than their enormous value to all Americans. His often inspiring and accurate rhetoric about the importance of public investments to the nation’s future is rarely backed by budgetary commitments that would match the ambition of his words. And he tends to downplay the economic hardship that continues to be experienced by a broad swath of the population in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
But the president’s speech also created an opening for progressives to build on, which would be a much more constructive response than the usual fulminating. In emphasizing the theme of international competitiveness, Obama opened the door to much greater attention to the ways in which other countries meet various challenges more effectively than the United States does. In the past, attempts to highlight how other nations more cost-effectively provide health insurance, or early childhood education, or job training, or protections against various forms of hardship, invariably fell on deaf ears in the U.S. political environment. An attitude of American exceptionalism by and large precluded any meaningful discussion of the relative strengths of the economic and social policies of other countries.
That began to change somewhat during the recent debate over health care reform. The painful reality that every other advanced nation provides universal medical coverage while spending far less per capita and experiencing better health outcomes than the U.S. ultimately became too intolerable to allow the status quo to continue. Although the actual reforms that our political process generated resulted in a system that will be unique to the United States, growing public attention to the relative superiority of other approaches provided an important impetus to reform that had eluded progressives for decades.
President Obama primarily confined his competitiveness references to matters related to economic innovation, including education, but it should not be difficult to broaden the scope of debate to include contrasts between the United States and other advanced countries on such issues as economic inequality, wage growth, social mobility, employment levels, and retirement security. On all of those fronts, we rank poorly relative to other nations even though our overall economy is much larger. If, as the president said, the future is ours to win, we will need to win as well on those broader measures of economic well-being. That’s a challenge that progressives should embrace and urge the president to repeat at every opportunity.