By Froma Harrop
MEDFORD, Ore. — “Obama says he’s going to make middle-class jobs,” the breakfast room troubadour bellowed at the Holiday Inn Express to those who wanted to listen — and to those who didn’t. “Did he make your job?” he went on, cornering a female employee. “Private companies make jobs.”
The commentary was not entirely wrong. Private enterprise creates the great majority of jobs in this country. But the baritone assumes that entrepreneurs can easily grow good jobs in a world filled with smart young people working for less money.
Every successful rich country — Germany, for example — has a government actively building the right economic environment, including an educated workforce able to fill good jobs. It has low unemployment, high wages and a sturdy social safety net.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed “a Fix-It-First program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.” A modern country needs a modern infrastructure. It helps the makers make more.
Here in the Northwest, the aging I-5 bridge over the Columbia River is a major worry for both Oregon and Washington state. It needs rebuilding — and, for that, a good chunk of federal money.
If in the course of rebuilding these bridges, thousands of jobs are made, that’s what we call a win-win situation. That taxpayer dollars are involved is no reason to hate the program.
Public investment in energy technology is today’s moonshot. Not withstanding some bad bets, such as Solyndra, it multiplies private-sector jobs. It is partly why American manufacturers are selling cars again and why, as Obama noted, wind and solar energy has doubled.
Technology is why, as Obama also pointed out, Caterpillar, Ford, Intel and Apple are opening plants in the United States, rather than in China, Mexico and other lower-wage countries. Robots are allowing us to compete.
Now Obama does play fast and loose with some numbers, according to the fact-checkers. While wind and solar energy production is way up, it still represents a very small piece of the energy mix — even the renewable energy mix (which includes hydropower and ethanol). But these technologies are still relatively new, and they’re way up from nothing.
Obama breaks the truth-meter when he claims that “we have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas.” If only. He was talking about his administration’s call for raising fuel economy standards by 2025 — a bold goal that carmakers may or may not be able to reach. Suffice it to say, though, the 17 percent rise in fuel efficiency over the last four years is very, very impressive.
Most viewers weren’t dining with the fact-checkers, but even if they had, the news sounded pretty good. Over half a million new jobs, more American cars sold, less foreign oil used, a housing market on the mend. As Obama reminded everyone, “We have cleared away the rubble of crisis” created by you-know-who.
Sitting behind Obama, Republican House Speaker John Boehner stoically listened to the progress reports. Next to him, Vice President Joe Biden seemed paralyzed in a grin.
Much of the Republican reaction was self-pity. Official responder Florida Sen. Marco Rubio offered a long list of fictional accusations. Example: When Republicans say that “government can’t control the weather” (not quite true with global warming), “he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air.”
Hey, it was a tough night for Republicans. Their big voices on the radio and in motel breakfast rooms have little recourse but to raise the volume.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org