Obama, Romney and the Auto Rescue: What Is the Economy For?

Today in Michigan and Arizona, Republicans go to the polls to register their choice for the Republican presidential nominee. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama spoke at a gathering of United Auto Workers members in Washington. Although the election is still months away, of course these events aren’t happening isolated from one another.

There’s a bigger question at play here than who wins the prettier headline on a Beltway paper tomorrow, and it’s a question we’re sure to keep fighting about all year. It’s “what is the economy for, anyway?”

It’s a good question, because how you measure the answer says a lot about what you think we need to do to fix it. Do we measure the economy purely by whether a line on a chart is pointing up or down? Do we measure it by whether the very wealthiest people are able to make themselves endlessly wealthier? Or is the health of “the economy” measured by something a little more tangible, a little broader?

You don’t have to pretend President Obama has been perfect on every issue facing working people to notice that there’s a difference in how he and Republican candidate Mitt Romney talk about the auto rescue program—a program that, largely, has worked to keep the industry alive and make it profitable again. While Romney used his time in Michigan to bash the auto rescue as a “bailout” for unions and push an economic agenda that would shift money away from Medicaid into upper-class tax cuts, Obama defended the auto rescue as part of an economy where we all have a stake in each other’s success.

You know why the “bailout for unions” storyline completely collapses under examination? Because union members—the people who, after all, built these companies—gave up a lot to save them. They made concessions on wages, benefits and retiree pensions. They offered to lose things that they had fought and bargained for because they wanted to protect the industry not just for them but for workers after them. It will not be easy to win back the things that were promised them, things they let go at personal cost. As the president said, that’s actual sacrifice. That’s not the action of a greedy special interest looking to loot the taxpayer, that’s the action of a group of people who understand what “the economy” really means.

If you think “the economy” is purely about the bank accounts of the 1%, maybe a program like the auto rescue doesn’t make a lot of sense. But if—like our members do—you think of the “the economy” as meaning how we’re all doing, then saving those jobs, for the past three years and for the future, is vital.

When the people we talk to talk about the economy, they mean something simple. Can I get a job? Can I stay out of debt, feed my family, and not go bankrupt if I get sick? Will I and my neighbors be able to stay in our homes? Will my kids be able to get a decent education and build a life for themselves? After a lifetime of hard work, will I be able to retire? Candidates of both parties need to look at what they’re saying about “the economy” and figure out how it answers those questions.

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