In The News
Obama charges up Laborfest with new ideas and the need to fight on
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
The huge and largely supportive crowd at Laborfest was primed for the president of the United States to lay out his vision, defend his successes, rebut the fallacies that had invaded their TV sets and wield his wry humor and lance-sharp examples of why the “party of no” needed to be laid waste Nov. 2.
From every corner around Miller Stage -- where at least 10,000 listeners had gathered on bleaches, behind barricades, peeking out from concession stands, listening from picnic tables and leaning against metal fencing, the crowd erupted in cheer after cheer. And it was only partly in thanks that a surprise rainy morning that had threatened Labofest’s setup and dotted its parade cleared remarkably when Air Force One flew over the grounds shortly before 2 p.m. bringing the president to familiar Wisconsin territory – only just down I-94 from his hometown of Chicago as he noted.
It was his third visit to the state in two months and his second to Laborfest, where he gave a notable campaign speech in 2008 on his run for the White House.
Now Barack Obama was being asked to inspire and reassure. “Why can’t his message get through today?” many in the crowd had asked, even though they knew the force of the money and lobbying interests against him and how it is always the politicians in office that are blamed in our short-sighted fashion for economic problems that have been decades in the making.
And Obama delivered, certainly in vision and common sense explanation that deserved to be heard above the media cacophony. Though it remains to be seen if the vision will be heard.
This time, he did not try to mix creating jobs with deficit reduction, a rhetorical device which in the past seemed to dilute his message. He talked about those efforts separately and wondered aloud why he was dismissed by Republicans even when he promoted ideas they once championed.
“They talk about me like a dog,” he inserted into his speech, one of his most personal candid moments, which brought a growl of recognition from the crowd about what could really lay behind that attitude. He has clearly been in a constant fight against a stream of hostility and negativism – even while his presidency has made landmark strides in attacking the deficit, controlling runaway military expenditures, curbing Wall Street, rescuing an abandoned auto industry and spreading health care in ways that the may not bear full fruit to the public by November, something the Republicans have been counting on with their delaying tactics.
“Even on things we usually agree on, they say no,” Obama recounted to growing laugher and applause. “If I said the sky was blue, they say no. If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no. They just think it’s better to score political points before an election than to solve problems. So they said no to help for small businesses, even when the small businesses said we desperately need this. This used to be their key constituency. They said no. No to middle-class tax cuts. They say they’re for tax cuts; I say, okay, let’s give tax cuts to the middle class. No.
“No to clean energy jobs. No to making college more affordable. No to reforming Wall Street. They’re saying right now, no to cutting more taxes for small business owners and helping them get financing.
“You know, I heard -- somebody out here was yelling ‘Yes we can.’ Remember that was our slogan? Their slogan is ‘No we can’t.’ No, no, no, no.
“I mean, I personally think ‘Yes we can’ is more inspiring. To steal a line from our old friend Ted Kennedy: What is it about working men and women that they find so offensive?”
His skewers didn’t stop there even as he announced a new six-year program that, in a different era would gain bipartisan support – a way to use investment banking, not the federal deficit, to modernize the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The plan would rebuild 150,000 miles of roads, lay and maintain 4,000 miles of railways, restore 150 miles of runways and galvanize a “next-generation air-traffic control system to reduce travel time and delays for American travelers.” Did anyone notice that is a lot of jobs along the way?
“That’s not a Republican or a Democratic idea,” Obama pointed out. But he is certainly conscious of the realities of their “no” even to good ideas. It’s a reality, Obama was saying, that will force the American people to take a stand at the polls Nov. 2. He scoffed at the Republican ideas of driving in reverse, drawing chuckles with his extended comparison of their philosophy to putting the car in the ditch and then asking for the keys.
“Now, anybody who thinks that we can move this economy forward with just a few folks at the top doing well, hoping that it’s going to trickle down to working people who are running faster and faster just to keep up, you’ll never see it.
“If that’s what you’re waiting for, you should stop waiting, because it’s never happened in our history.
"That’s not how America was built. It wasn’t built with a bunch of folks at the top doing well and everybody else scrambling. We didn’t become the most prosperous country in the world just by rewarding greed and recklessness. . . We didn’t do it just by gambling and chasing paper profits on Wall Street. We built this country by making things, by producing goods we could sell. We did it with sweat and effort and innovation. We did it on the assembly line and at the construction site.”
In contrast to the GOP concept, Obama pointed out some of his major changes to date. Among them: “Instead of giving tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas, we’re cutting taxes to companies that are putting our people to work right here. I don’t want to buy stuff from someplace else. I want to grow our exports so that we’re selling to someplace else -- products that say Made in the U.S.A.”
Noting how his administration actually ended the combat mission in Iraq, he asked some serious questions:
“This new generation of troops coming home from Iraq, they’ve earned their place alongside the greatest generation. . . They’ve got the skills, they’ve got the training, they’ve got the drive to move America’s economy forward once more.
“But, Milwaukee, they’re coming home to an economy hit by a recession deeper than anything we’ve seen since the 1930s. So the question is, how do we create the same kinds of middle-class opportunities for this generation as my grandparents’ generation came home to?”
The speech, obviously, was much more than a celebration of unions, though it was built around that theme of labor at an event packed with the union marchers who had just finished their parade of celebration through downtown Milwaukee. As eager as they were to begin an extended party of food, drink, dancing and entertainment (all expanded until 7 p.m. to contain the president’s visit and security realities), they listened attentively and even raptly.
They were also treated to a range of tough and moving moments and speeches in a program leading up to Obama. The sponsor’s chief operating officer, the Milwaukee Area Labor Council’s Sheila Cochran, seemingly unfatigued by five intensive days of planning this event with the White House, charged the crowd out of its seats by showing them how to text on their cell phones their distaste for the Republican view of America and where to sign up to hit the streets to “defeat this onslaught of money” in misleading and even obscenely false media commercials. Pointing at the American flag hanging on the wall of the stage, she told the crowd that Nov. 2 was the date “to give us our flag back, to give us back the real America.”
The power of change was emphasized by the surprise appearance of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was re-emphasizing that mass transit rail was a federal program, a train that was coming across the US and no local politician should score points by claiming the ability “to stop it.”
He emphasized the jobs and repair of commerce the trains represent, as does the new program announced by Obama to spur a modernized infrastructure.
The AFL-CIO’s national president, Richard Trumka, also took the podium at Laborfest to charge up the union troops with the need to work for change and bring their neighbors along to understand the importance he and the president laid out: “America cannot have a strong, growing economy without a strong, growing middle class.”
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis recalled her childhood in a union working family but detailed new federal programs for more jobs and better safety, one of the major changers she has brought to a once stagnant labor department
Roundly endorsed by Obama (as was Sen. Russ Feingold who was fulfilling his longtime commitment to his hometown of Janesville’s Labor Day celebration) were Nov. 2 Democratic candidates for major offices, among them Mayor Tom Barrett, who took the podium to bluntly put the tightness of the governor’s race before the unions,
“Times are tough and more jobs are No. 1,” Barrett told the crowd, “but this is a state that knows how to work for change. We have great workers here that deserve a chance.”
So who do you want in the governor’s mansion, he rhetorically asked, him “or one of two guys who love going around saying how lousy things are.”
Folks who had marched in the parade were given first crack at seating within the secured area, but several others were allowed in at the last minute and concessions continued to operate through the president's visit, despite earlier suggestions from the advance team that they would be closed.
Posted Sept. 6