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Iowa Sen. Harkin, Robert Reich agree: Obama must be bold, use his bully pulpit

When President Barack Obama addresses the nation and a joint session of Congress to unveil steps for job creation and the economy, there’s only one thing he needs to remember: go big. That’s the advice of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Tom Harkin

“The urgency of President Obama’s job speech tonight cannot be overstated,” Harkin said Thursday morning during a conference call with reporters. “Last week the Labor Department reported that zero net jobs were created for the month of August. The United States remains mired in the most protracted period of joblessness since the Great Depression.

“Count me among those who believe the President needs to be bold tonight, very bold.”

For starters, said Harkin, Obama needs to speak out against “the mindless march to austerity” while continuing to find compromise on necessary spending cuts and tax increases to address the long-term national deficit.

“But in the short-term we need a robust federal agenda to boost the economy and create jobs,” he said.

A similar message was delivered Wednesday night during a lecture at the University of Iowa by Reich, who called for additional government stimulus and state loans to boost the fragile national economy. A proposal that only addresses continued unemployment needs and ongoing tax cuts, he said, would not be enough to get the country back on its feet.

Robert Reich

“The debt — the national deficit — although real, is manageable,” he said. “What needs to be addressed right now is jobs and [economic] growth.”

Both men also advocate directed government stimulus toward a hurting middle class, which both agree have been the worst hit by the ongoing economic downturn. They also agree that not enough attention is being paid to issues surrounding America’s middle class — a subject that Harkin, most recently joined during the August recess by U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, has discussed at length in HELP Committee hearings as well as Iowa-based town hall meetings and roundtable discussions.

“I can report that there is a serious disconnect between Washington, D.C. and Iowa,” Harkin said. “In Washington, politicians have persuaded themselves that the number one issues is the budget deficit. Iowans are focused on a more urgent deficit, the jobs deficit.

“But I’m also concerned about a third deficit — the deficit of vision and courage in Washington. We have failed to confront the jobs crisis with the boldness that earlier Americans summoned in times of national challenge.”

Regardless of Obama’s proposals during his jobs speech Thursday night, Harkin said there will be a certain element within the Republican Party that will oppose it.

“Their mantra is, ‘Government can’t create jobs.’ Well, that’s just nonsense,” he said, added that it was government visionaries who funded and built the nation’s interstate highways, created the Internet, advanced the bio-sciences and explored space.

“These government initiatives spawned countless inventions and new industries, creating 10 of millions good, middle-class jobs,” Harkin said.

It’s been hinted that Obama will proposed $300 billion stimulus package that would include both tax cuts and spending. That won’t be enough, Harkin argued, especially if it is too spread out to make a real difference.

“If [that amount] is really focused on infrastructure — school modernization, for example, [or] roads, bridges, sewer and water systems that will help our local communities — that could be a good shot in the arm,” he said. “But if it is $300 billion spread all over the place, I’m not certain it is going to do much good. If you are going to spread it out, it’s going to have to be a lot more than $300 billion.”

Since it is a given that some will be opposed to whatever Obama proposes, “even if it is $10,” then Obama needs to “do an FDR, a Harry Truman, a Dwight Eisenhower type program that is big and bold and captures the imagination of the American people,” he said.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Republican Party had a brief flirtation with the 20th century,” Reich wrote while discussing the Sept. 7 GOP presidential debate.

… Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, and presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon lent their support to such leftist adventures as Medicare and a clean environment. Eisenhower pushed for the greatest public-works project in the history of the United States — the National Defense Highway Act, which linked the nation with four-lane (and occasionally six-lane) Interstate highways. The GOP also supported a large expansion of federally-supported higher education. And to many Republicans at the time, a marginal income tax rate of more than 70 percent on top incomes was not repugnant.

But the Republican Party that emerged in the 1970s began its march back to the 19th century. Ronald Reagan lent his charm and single-mindedness to the charge but the foundations had been laid long before. By the time Newt Gingrich and his regressive followers took over the House of Representatives in 1995, social conservatives, isolationists, libertarians, and corporatists had taken over the GOP once again. …

An emphasis on the type of infrastructure Harkin described above, Reich advocated in a recent video message that is embedded below, is the nation’s way forward and the path to American jobs.

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