Game Change: The (wonky) sequel
The Washington Post, March 14, 2012
(A hotel suite. David Axelrod and President Obama sit on sofas. Plates with cold french fries and half-eaten sandwiches litter the coffee table between them. A knock is heard at the door. A Secret Service agent opens it. David Plouffe enters.)
Obama: You have the new numbers?
Plouffe: Right here.
Obama: How bad is it?
Plouffe: Bad. We're down four points nationally. Three in Ohio. Four in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Three in Colorado.
Axelrod: What about Florida?
Plouffe: Down three.
Axelrod: The damn Rubio thing worked.
Obama: Alright, what are our options? We're five weeks out. (The president rises, paces, lights a cigarette).
Plouffe: It's the unemployment. With 8.2 percent, people just don't buy that things are improving enough. Especially when the new jobs don't pay well.
Axelrod: People need to see you fighting for good jobs, Mr. President. Not just any jobs. Middle-class jobs.
Obama: It's not like Romney has any ideas.
Axelrod: He doesn't need any. He's the change this time.
Plouffe: Mr. President, we need something bold. Something sexy. An idea that can frame the debate in the home stretch. Something that draws a stark contrast between our values and the Republicans'. That can mobilize our base but also appeal to independents.
Axelrod: If we don't shake things up, this thing is over.
Obama: I get it, I get it. (Takes a pensive drag, exhales.) How nice for Obama. First black president. Staved off a depression. Then the people sent him home. We need a game changer, guys.
(The three men stare into space, thinking.)
Axelrod: There may be one thing . . .
Axelrod: Did you see Alan Krueger's memo? On service-sector jobs?
Axelrod: Well, he's obviously not a political guy, but he's right that the jobs plan we've campaigned on would create only 1 to 2 million jobs. It feels like small ball.
Obama: When we made that plan we didn't think Congress could bite off more. We thought we might actually get some of it passed.
Axelrod: I know. But with Romney and the super PACS pounding us every day about "23 million Americans looking for full-time work who can't find it," our stuff feels puny. Anyway, Alan's bigger point is that we've been so obsessed with getting the job machine restarted that the question of whether the jobs being created are any good gets no discussion.
Plouffe: I saw his memo. I was the one who said we should brag about bringing back manufacturing jobs. I didn't realize they're paying only 15 to 18 bucks an hour.
Obama: With lousy benefits. Yeah, I know. I haven't known what I can do about that.
Axelrod: Alan says you can make the conversation much bigger. Explain that in an era when 3 billion new workers have entered the global market, it's bound to place huge stresses on workers in wealthy nations. This isn't just about recovering from the financial crisis—this challenge will be with us for decades. We need to figure out how to sustain middle-class work when we can't hide from these new realities.
Obama: So what's his answer?
Axelrod: Start with the jobs that can never be sent overseas—"in-person service sector work." Things like home health care, retail sales, personal grooming, food preparation and teaching. This kind of work accounts for maybe 40 million jobs. It's experiencing faster job growth than the economy as a whole, but wages are relatively low and trail wage growth in the broader economy.
Obama: I see where this is headed. If we can make sure this kind of work delivers a middle-class living, it'll offer a crucial measure of security and optimism in a global age to millions.
Axelrod: Exactly. A crusade for middle-class jobs that can never be offshored! The centerpiece of your second term!
Obama (warming to it): And once we come together around the goal, the question for the nation is this: How should the cost of increased compensation for in-person service work be borne—in terms of slightly higher prices for consumers, reduced returns to capital, or increased transfer payments? Because presumably it'll take some blend of unions, living-wage laws or bigger versions of wage subsidies like the earned income tax credit to get us there.
Axelrod: Plus moving health costs from companies to government so firms can pay higher wages. You don't have to solve it all by November. Define the challenge and where you want to lead us, and get everyone talking about the goal.
Plouffe: It's very big picture. I could see a big-think economic version of your race speech in '08.
Obama: I like it. I'm going to play with this. Have Favreau come by to work on the speech around 9. We can make this the Philly event Tuesday. We'll need some CEOs for the rollout. Oh, and Ax—
Axelrod: Yes, Mr. President.
Obama: Tell Alan good work. And run this by O'Biden, too.
Axelrod: You betcha!