Despite the volley of partisan rhetoric hurled from Capitol Hill to the White House this week over President Obama’s proposed federal budget, it’s possible to discern the sounds of political harmony beneath the thunder.
It’s no surprise that Mr. Obama’s $4-trillion Fiscal Year 2016 budget was derided by leading Republicans as “dead on arrival,” and worse. We’ve come to expect that as politics as usual. The president’s reliance on large tax increases on corporations and the wealthy to finance efforts to help the middle class and create more jobs was a sure bet to be greeted with instant rejection.
But there’s something else — something more important, we hope — going on in the larger political discourse under way in the country as candidates gear up for the 2016 election.
The most striking evidence is that even Mitt Romney — he of the “47 percent” — made it a point before he bowed out of the upcoming race to promise that he would “end the scourge of poverty” if he ran. Similarly, Jeb Bush said in his non-declaration of a candidacy that, “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.”
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In other words, income inequality, long a fundamental concern of Democrats that President Obama has seized as his current theme, is being recognized by some GOP leaders as a major national issue that deserves a solution.
And not a minute too soon. For the last 15 years or so, the middle-class share of households has continued to shrink as more Americans fall to the bottom. The Great Recession worsened the trend because the economy lost a lot of middle-income jobs, which have been replaced during the painfully slow recovery by lower-paying jobs.
Given that the middle class is where the great mass of voters are, it makes sense that politicians of all stripes would sooner or later wise up. No one should harbor any illusions about the political difficulty of implementing effective policies to deal with the problem, but agreeing that, in fact, there is a problem represents a hopeful moment that must not be wasted.
The best solution outlined in Mr. Obama’s 2016 federal blueprint is a plan to increase jobs by spending $478 billion on transportation and infrastructure over six years. This represents over a third more than the current spending rate and a 78-percent increase for mass transit. He proposed to pay for it in part by getting $238 billion from a one-time tax on repatriated corporate profits.
Mr. Obama also proposed a host of other programs to help lift incomes, from free community college to more generous childcare subsidies and education tax credits, expanded unemployment benefits and others. But spending on infrastructure should be a priority because it produces good jobs even as it provides a tangible public benefit. As President Ronald Reagan said, “The best social program is a productive job.”
Rep. Paul Ryan, D-Wisc., is among the GOP leaders in Congress who thinks there may be something in the president’s plan to work with, including the expansion of the earned-income credit to childless adults and a public-works bill that can generate jobs.
The sticking point comes in how the spending is paid for. Reaching agreement won’t be easy, but both sides must realize Americans are fed up with gridlock. If the nation’s leaders can agree on the goal — helping the middle class — they should surely be able to reach consensus on how to get there.