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Wind Of Change In D.C.

GENERIC George Bush poll popularity election economy
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This column was written by Jared Bernstein.
This may seem like a weird time for progressives to feel optimistic, but a confluence of recent events suggests the faintest breeze of hope in the air.

Granted, the winds of corruption and shortsightedness still dominate. More so than at any time in recent memory, high-level officials are indistinguishable from right-wing lobbyists, gutting government's ability to regulate corporate power. The Justice Department is throwing the fight against the tobacco companies; the White House is busy editing the science out of regulations that might restrain polluters.

Meanwhile, the administration and its congressional allies continue the fiscal recklessness that has been their hallmark since they got here. If they continue to have their way -- and they recently added a new slew of regressive tax cuts to their 2006 budget -- it will eventually be impossible for government to fulfill essential functions, from safety nets to investment in future technologies. (I know, that's the point: Starve the beast.)

Given this gale force of business as usual, where's this hopeful little breeze coming from? In fact, from a number of places:

  • Infighting: There is clearly more dissension within conservative ranks. It might be that midterm elections are within sight, and members of Congress are paying a little more attention to polls showing their popularity ratings coming in just above that of Lyme disease. There's been uncharacteristic pushback from former White House allies on George W. Bush's domestic (stem-cell research, Social Security "reform") and foreign agendas (the war in Iraq).

  • Speaking of Social Security, the more people learn about the president's plan, the less they like it. What's so notable here is that one of the most sophisticated and heretofore successful spin machines in the history of politics has been unable to sell the public on the benefits of privatization.

  • A counter-theme is evolving. As these political phenomena are unfolding, leading newspapers have been providing a critically important "back story" regarding trends in economic inequality and mobility. A theme -- moving away from risk shifting and back to risk sharing -- is emerging.

The subject of this theme surfaced in 2004 in a prize-winning series by Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Gosselin. As stated in the introduction to the series, the piece questions "[w]hy so many families report being financially less secure even as the nation has grown more prosperous. The answer lies in a quarter-century-long shift of economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families. Safety nets that once protected Americans from economic turbulence -- safeguards like unemployment compensation and employer loyalty -- have eroded or vanished… The result is a daunting 'New Deal' for many working Americans -- one that compels them to cope, largely on their own, with financial forces far beyond their control."