Less than a week after he became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama launched his "Change That Works for You" tour in Raleigh Monday, and its main message couldn't have been clearer. The risky choice to make in the '08 presidential election isn't electing him—rookie national leader though he may be; it's staying the downward course with the Bush administration and Republican presidential nominee John McCain, whose economic policies—Obama argued—are the same as President Bush's. "It is time to try something new," Obama told an invitation-only audience at the State Fairgrounds. "The seriousness of this moment tells us we can't afford not to try."
Those expecting detailed policy statements from Obama will have to wait. This was a red-meat speech with a couple of proposals to address the nose-diving economy in the short term, plus a promise to soon deliver his ideas for long-term economic reform. But overall, the point was that Obama understands the American Dream is in deep trouble, and he will offer fundamental changes to restore it; McCain, Obama said, doesn't and won't.
In the short term, Obama called for a second round of immediate fiscal stimulus—in the form of more federal rebate checks—to pump $50 billion into the economy; he renewed his call for a $10 billion foreclosure prevention fund to help struggling mortgage-payers refinance their loans. He also advocated for an immediate extension of unemployment benefits, given that there have been five consecutive months of job loss—a total of 320,000 jobs shed since January.
His long-term program agenda, Obama said, will focus on workforce development, including beefing up science and technology training in our colleges and universities, and on investments in the renewable-energy industry to break the nation's dependence on imported oil. He's proposing an annual $4,000 college tuition subsidy in return for student community or national service after graduation. He also promised to invest in public infrastructure to create jobs and build the economy. And he said his health-care reform plans would offer every American affordable insurance while reducing premiums for the average family with insurance now by $2,500 a year.
All of his programs are "paid for," Obama said, with off-setting proposals to eliminate corporate tax loopholes and the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Obama's own tax-cut plan is a $1,000 a year reduction for the 95 percent of working families who are "middle-class" or below, he said, but the rich would pay more.
He's also supporting a windfall-profits tax on oil companies. A McCain plan to cut corporate taxes as an economic stimulus measure, by contrast, would reduce Exxon Mobil's current tax bill by $1.2 billion a year, Obama charged.
"When it comes to the economy, John McCain and I have a fundamentally different vision of where to take the country," Obama said. "Because for all of his talk of independence, the centerpiece of his economic plan amounts to a full-throated endorsement of George Bush's policies"—including a permanent occupation of Iraq.
The Independent U.K. reported last week that the Bush administration is negotiating a secret deal to establish more than 50 permanent bases in Iraq. As part of the pact, the newspaper reported, Bush is insisting on immunity from Iraqi law for U.S. troops and contractors, as well as a free hand to carry out military activities without consulting the Baghdad government.
"Instead of investing $12 billion a month to rebuild Iraq," Obama declared, "I think it's time we invested in our roads and schools and bridges and started to rebuild America."
Obama brought no North Carolina-specific proposals, however. Nothing about the state's road-building, transit or school-capacity needs. In fact, the decision to come to Raleigh on the first day of the "tour" seemed a bit hurried, and couched in national political terms more than state ones, with Obama announcing that he's not conceding the "red states" to McCain and intends to compete in places like Virginia and North Carolina.
Obama's audience included former Sen. John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who were introduced but didn't speak and left as Obama finished. Gov. Mike Easley, who supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, took the stage to introduce Obama. "I know I'm late," Easley joked. "But I am on the train."
The only other speaker was a Pittsboro woman, Pamella Cash-Roper, who spoke about her husband's and her tough economic situation since both developed heart problems, had bypass surgeries, were unable to work, and lost their jobs and their health insurance.
Cash-Roper said she was a lifelong Republican who believes in the American Dream and tried to live it. But when their health issues made it impossible for them to work, "the help we thought would always be there was nowhere to be seen," she said. That convinced her the country needs change, from the "George Bush economy of special interests and big business" to policies that help "hard-working people."
After the event, Cash-Roper, 54, said her 58-year-old husband, Keith Roper, who was an electrical technician at WakeMed, needed heart surgery in 2000 and couldn't work thereafter. He lost his job and their company-paid health benefits; and though federal law guaranteed him extended health insurance for 18 months, they couldn't afford the $600 a month insurance payments on top of the $1,800 a month for his prescriptions.
Meanwhile, Cash-Roper said, they were dropped by their disability insurance carrier, a decision they continue to dispute, so far, unsuccessfully. So they sold their house, moved to a smaller one and went without health insurance for two years until he became eligible, as a Social Security disability recipient, for Medicare.
A nurse, Cash-Roper continued to work as a home-health aide until 2005 when she, too, needed bypass surgery and also turned to disability payments.
Today, she said, the two live on combined disability payments of $1,164 a month. Each takes about 15 kinds of medicine paid for by a state prescription-subsidy plan enacted during the Easley administration and paid for from tobacco-settlement funds funneled through the Health & Wellness Trust Fund.
It cuts their costs to between $2 and $4 a month for each prescription, she said. "If that had not been implemented," she said, "we'd probably both be dead."
State Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, who, along with Congressman G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from the 1st District, has served as an unofficial state campaign chair for Obama, predicted that he can win North Carolina in November. Butterfield was less certain, saying it'll be "hard work" and "close, but I think we can come out on top."
Blue said Obama had 300 paid staffers in North Carolina prior to the May 6 primary here, and he expected the campaign will have at least that many again in the fall. They, and Obama's thousands of volunteers, will be concentrating on registering new voters, especially young and minority voters, and turning them out for the general election. Whether the increased turnout will be enough to defeat McCain, Blue said, will depend on Obama's message. "They have to believe that an Obama presidency will make a difference in their lives."