Save the American Dream From Washington's Bickering

The public must pressure our politicians much harder to bring back basic bargain.

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President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner speak to reporters following a meeting at the White House, March 1, 2013.

Last week I saw the American Repertory Theater's production of The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams's four-character "memory play" about the Wingfields: a depression era, downwardly mobile family who struggle with the disillusionment of their everyday lives.

Tom Wingfield (played by Zachary Quinto), a warehouse worker who wants to run away and pursue his dream of being a writer, narrates the story. Tom recollects his memories of his mother Amanda's (Cherry Jones) obsessive drive to find a gentlemen caller for her daughter Laura (Celia Keenan Bolger). A young, physically challenged, shy women who dotes on her glass animal collection. The three are largely pessimistic about their futures: pursuing unrealistic fantasies to escape their circumstances.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Jim O'Connor (Brian J. Smith), the gentleman caller, is an optimist. He embraces the American Dream; that with hard work, he can surmount any obstacle and succeed. Jim exclaims: "I'm taking a course in radio engineering at night school. I believe in the future of television. I'm planning to get in on the ground floor. All that remains is the industry to get under way!" The growth of the communications industry was enabled by the Communications Act of 1934: a law that brought about a combination of government investment and regulation. It gave media companies a chance to succeed. But can the federal government do the same today? Invest in new industries to help create jobs? No. The American Dream lives on—it's so embedded in our culture that nothing can kill it—but with the president and Congress constantly at odds, there is little chance that the New Deal-like solutions the president discussed in his 2013 State of the Union address will materialize, regardless of the president's recent efforts to repair his bruised relationship with the GOP.

President Obama wants "restore the basic bargain that built this country." That "if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you'll get ahead." He proposes to make preschool education available to all, innovate the manufacturing sector, invest in renewable energy, develop science and technology training programs, and reform the tax code, one of the biggest impediments to income equality and business growth. Fortune 500 companies are currently holding $1 trillion in cash idle until economic and political uncertainty dissipates.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

Just a few weeks after the State of the Union address, Congress and the administration ushered in the "Sequestration Age." Sequestration cuts the National Science Foundation's budget by $388 million, the National Health Institute's by $1.6 billion, NASA's by $970 million, and the Head Start program's by $406 million. 70,000 fewer children and families now don't have access to the education and health benefits Head Start offers. So much for restoring the "basic bargain."

The public must push our politicians much harder to bring back this basic bargain. We have the means to change Washington. We can reach out to our representatives now, or vote for more pragmatic legislators in next year's congressional elections. This will require us to get out and vote—midterm elections generally see 35 percent voter turnout. The public must also embrace Jim O'Connor's optimism, and not fall victim to the Wingfields' disillusionment.

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