The Big Mistake in President Obama’s Economic Pivot: Overlooking the Grassroots

By Joelle Gamble |

The president spoke about federal legislation to promote economic opportunity, but real progress is happening at the local level.

Yesterday, President Obama traveled to Northwestern University to give a speech on the new American economy. The speech was touted as a major pivot, both rhetorical and political, from a heavily international focus to a domestic one.

Obama’s speech highlighted some of the successes of his administration, pointing to a lowered unemployment rate, a higher rate of insured individuals through Obamacare, and an increase in manufacturing jobs since the 2008 financial crisis. He also laid out some proposed investments the U.S. can make to build a new economy, ranging from clean energy to education to wages.

This isn’t a critique of the President’s speech per se. What he had to say is not wrong; the problem is that his vision of how economic progress happens, like the vision of many other national leaders, does not have enough depth.

For example, President Obama mentions that the U.S. must “measure our success by something more than our GDP, or a jobs report.”

That is very much the right idea if we want to get a clearer picture of middle class opportunity. We already know that wages and incomes for most Americans have stagnated and that our current economic recovery has not produced substantial changes for working families. But what does the policy response look like?

Obama outlined several key solutions: Raising the minimum wage, equalizing pay for women, investing in clean energy, and pursuing college affordability. If we had a functioning Congress, the President would be right on the money, and this would be a productive speech that politicians and advocates could use to push for new legislation. However, we lost that functioning Congress long ago.

So, other than relying on federal legislation, what can be done? We need to build economic prosperity for working Americans from the ground up and create a grassroots economy.

The president says he plans to continue to work with “governors, mayors, CEOs, and philanthropists.” This matters, as local actors are the ones building the new economic future. One can look to the Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities Initiative to see how anchor institutions (major employers that are rooted in a particular community) have the ability to shape positive economic outcomes for towns, neighborhoods, and cities across the country.

To cite another example, the president points to Dodd-Frank as an important milestone in improving the American economy post-recession. But that raises the question of how advocates can continue to build on financial reform in this current political climate. Here’s one way: Roosevelt Institute Fellow Saqib Bhatti provides a new model for improving municipal finance that connects to grassroots work in communities.

To achieve the President’s vision for economic stability for America’s middle and working class, we need to start from the bottom, not the top. Grassroots economic change is the new engine for widespread economic prosperity. And once our leaders in Washington recognize that, we might see a real pivot in our political conversation.

Joelle Gamble is the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

Photo: White House

Joelle Gamble is Senior Advisor to the President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute and National Director of the Roosevelt network.