the national interest

In Two Interviews, Obama Signals the Future of the Democratic Party

US President Barack Obama and State Secretary Hillary Clinton return to thei seats after speaking during the transfer of remains ceremony marking the return to the US of the remains of the four Americans killed in an attack this week in Benghazi, Libya, at the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on September 14, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages)
President Obama and Hillary Clinton, September 2012. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The expansion of child care and pre-Kindergarten education has interested Democrats for many years. Only recently has the issue moved from the periphery to the center of the Party’s domestic ambitions. I wrote about this important change recently, and more evidence can be seen in two recent interviews President Obama has given.

In his new interview with BuzzFeed, Obama was asked why gay rights activists enjoyed more success during his administration than others. Obama’s answer is revealing:

But part of it is also, frankly, that an issue like nondiscrimination for the LGBT community is a little bit easier than the issues of inner-city poverty, right? You not discriminating against a gay person may require you to undergo some change of mind, but it doesn’t require you to potentially — calling on the government to provide more support for impoverished children so that they’ve got day care that’s high quality.

The interesting thing is that, when presented with the difficulty of alleviating inner-city poverty, the solution that springs first to Obama’s mind is high-quality day care. And that is a totally plausible, if partial, approach to the problem. But this problem is not the one he’d have named first even a couple years ago.

Likewise, in his interview with Vox, Ezra Klein asks Obama about wage stagnation (“How have we gotten to a point where businesses can be doing so well but workers don’t necessarily share in that prosperity?”). This is a similar but not identical problem to inner-city poverty. After running through the causes of the problem, Obama identifies solutions. This time he names health care (which he has already done) first, but then goes immediately to child care:

So our job now is to create additional tools that, number one, make sure that everybody’s got a baseline of support to be able to succeed in a constantly moving economy. Whether it’s health care that survives job loss. Whether it is making sure we have child care that allows a two-working-household family to prosper while still caring for their kids. Having a certain baseline in terms of wages, through the minimum wage.

As I argued, child care is the next natural extension of the welfare state, because it works at both the level of social policy and investment — that is to say, it provides benefits to parents of young children and society as a whole in the future.

Catherine Rampell identifies another benefit of subsidized child care I hadn’t considered before. Parents, usually a mother, often decide whether or not to work by comparing their prospective wages with the cost of paying for child care. If the latter exceeds or approaches the former, they will care for their children themselves — why take a second job if you’ll have to spend all the earnings paying a stranger to watch your kids while you work? But, Rampell points out, this is frequently an error borne of shortsightedness. Staying out of the workforce degrades your skills, bringing invisible, long-term costs well down the road. “Research shows that women who take time off from paid work to raise kids suffer permanently lower wages,” she writes. “Families are considering only the immediate problem of money coming in and going out today, rather than the long-term problem of how a decision to outsource some household production today might affect the family’s collective earnings tomorrow.

Universal, high-quality child care may sound like a suspiciously broad panacea for any social ill — entrenched poverty, declining real wages, and so on. But this is because a well-designed policy actually would solve many problems at once. And that is why all the wings of the Democratic Party are converging on this.

In 2 Interviews, Obama Signals Democrats’ Future