Last month, President Obama defied Republican threats to file suit against him for his use of executive orders. “If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions,” the president said, “the best solution to that is passing bills. Pass a bill, solve a problem.”
Republican obstruction is so extreme that House Speaker John Boehner can’t get what he wants done, much less what the country needs. House Republicans have blocked countless jobs plans, stonewalled immigration reform, stopped a hike in the minimum wage and prevented emergency unemployment benefits from even getting a vote.
So Obama has begun to act — often belatedly and timidly, in his supporters’ view. He halted deportation of the “Dreamers,” kids of undocumented immigrants who were, like their parents, not born in the United States, and promises more action on immigration. He has ordered that the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act not be enforced against gay couples. He has issued a bevy of minor, common-sense measures on gun control. His push for executive action on climate change will have real impact. And recently, he lifted the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, shaming Republican obstruction of this long-overdue measure.
Republicans are simply deluding themselves if they think they can make Obama’s initiatives an issue in the fall elections. Americans want action, not more dysfunction.
In fact, the president would be well advised to elevate his sights. He has called economic inequality the “defining challenge of our time.” He understands this isn’t about a few getting obscenely rich but rather about the many struggling simply to stay afloat. Median household incomes have fallen in this “recovery,” as the richest 1 percent captured a staggering 95 percent of the nation’s income growth from 2009 to 2012. One in five children is raised in poverty. Workers’ wages have been mostly stagnant for more than 30 years, while productivity has continued to rise. U.S. companies could afford to provide higher wages to their workers, but instead the money goes to investors, chief executives and others in executive suites.
There are many reasons for this, of course, but one central cause has been the unrelenting war waged against workers and their right to organize and bargain collectively. The facts on this are clear. Unions — with President Franklin Roosevelt’s support — came out of World War II representing nearly 40 percent of the private workforce. Nonunion employers had to compete to attract decent employees. Union power in the workforce curbed the avarice of corporate chief executives and captured boards. Union power in the democracy helped to lift the minimum wage, pass fair labor standards, make workplaces safer and win the 40-hour work week.
Like all large institutions, unions were and are far from perfect. But it was their successes, not their failures, that led companies to open up a full-scale assault on them. When President Ronald Reagan fired the striking air-traffic control workers, open season was declared on labor. Companies shared tactics to crush organizing drives. Labor laws were trampled; enforcement weakened. Reforms were blocked in Congress. Segregationist Democrats in the South passed “right to work” laws, fearful of multiracial union organizing. New Democrats echoed conservative memes of unions as outmoded.
Now unions represent about 7 percent of the private-sector workforce. Scholars suggest that the decline of unions accounts directly for about one-third of the rise of inequality. That probably understates the effect. And as unions lost strength, the wealthy and big corporations were more able to rig the rules to benefit themselves.
President Obama could challenge this trend directly. The liberal think tank Demos recently published a study, “Underwriting Good Jobs,” showing that the president could use executive action to put some 21 million Americans on the road to joining the middle class.
The U.S. government is the largest employer of low-wage workers in the nation, with the $1.3 trillion it spends on purchasing goods and services. The president, standing in the proud tradition of Roosevelt, could issue a Good Jobs Executive Order that would reward companies who pay their workers a living wage, allow them a voice at the workplace without having to go on strike, adhere to federal workplace safety and fair labor standards and limit the pay of their chief executives to some reasonable ratio to that of their average workers.
Of course, the corporate and conservative lobbies would rise up. Nothing arouses more fury than something that might impede their access to federal lucre. But the country and the democracy have a huge stake in a broad middle class. Well-paid, productive workers aren’t simply an idle luxury; they are a vital necessity to any prosperous economy.
Obama could use the Good Jobs Executive Order to make federal procurement a spur to high-road employers. Millions would be helped directly. Democratic governors and mayors could issue similar orders. Once more, as under Roosevelt, government could stand with workers, helping to build rather than undermine an economy in which the rewards are widely shared.
Republicans want to make an election issue out of Obama’s use of executive actions to overcome their obstruction? The president should double down and raise the stakes. Democrats would win that fight — and they would deserve to win.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly online column for The Post.
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