While cam-paigning, Barack Obama is often heard to quote his wife, Michelle, saying, “We are not that far away from being normal.” He then goes on to explain that it was only five years ago that he and his wife were still struggling to pay off their student loans and were wondering how they could get together enough money to move out of their condo, which wasn’t big enough to hold them and their two little girls.
That was normal, meaning that the Obama family was experiencing what tens of millions of American families experience: Two jobs and still feeling the financial pressure of not quite bringing in enough to make it. The Obamas got out of their financial bind when, as he says, he made big money on his book and was elected to the Senate. He knows that he is no longer normal. Nevertheless, his normal days are not so long ago that he has forgotten how the end of the month can be a family money crisis.
You may be sure that not a few of his auditors sit in meeting halls and gyms listening to him in near rapture while they count on their fingers how many years it must be since Hillary was normal. It was 32 years ago that her husband was elected governor of Arkansas and the Clinton family left off being normal to begin their crawl higher up on the hog and the social scale. It’s been 20 years or so since her friends were not billionaires or movie stars.
It’s been a long time away from normal for John Edwards. He has made very many millions as a liability lawyer suing very large commercial enterprises on behalf of very small plaintiffs. In a time when there are no unions and most governmental entities are indifferent to our personal plights, Mr. Edwards and his ilk are often our only and last resort, but that does not make his occupation tasty.
Mr. Edwards says he has been battling against the T. rex corporations, but we remember that he got rich at it, and we wonder what his clients got. Then again, the candidate’s parents, South Carolina textile mill hands, appear at his rallies. They are the real McCoy, sitting there with labor-stained faces. The fact that he brings them and talks about their lives of low pay and hard work is an indicator that John Edwards has not, as they say in the South, “got above his raisin’.”
You do not get the impression that the Republican candidates, Mike Huckabee excepted, would have the wildest idea what Mr. Obama is talking about when he is discussing five years away from normal. John McCain, a fine and brave man deserving much respect, is the son of an admiral who was the son of an admiral. The McCains did good, but they are not normal and never were.
Fred Thompson comes from workaday beginnings, but he kissed normal goodbye many years ago. As for Rudy Giuliani, you have the impression that for him, those who live in Normal Land are potential marks, persons waiting to be taken by the clients he serves through the dubious medium of Giuliani Partners LLC, the enterprise through which he has pocketed millions. Mitt Romney is strictly a silver-spoon boy.
Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee would understand what Mr. Obama’s normal means. Mr. Paul grew up on the family dairy farm in Pennsylvania, the son of a man whose schooling stopped at the eighth grade. He worked to put himself through college and medical school, ultimately becoming an OB-GYN, but as a libertarian he has embraced a political philosophy that deifies government impotency, so his sympathies avail us nothing.
Mr. Huckabee’s father was a fireman and a mechanic and his mother was a clerk at the gas company, so he grew up in a two-income family, and you cannot do that without knowing exactly what normal means. If that were not enough, he graduated from Ouachita Baptist University, which fact tells you plenty about where Mr. Huckabee hails from.
But there is a difference between understanding and sympathizing with those who live normal lives, and figuring out what to do about it. Other than decrying the gradual impingement of ever harsher necessities on our families, what do we do?
The Republican answer is to cut taxes, but there comes a point when tax-cutting doesn’t cut it anymore.
A lot of analytical approaches reveal what’s killing middle-class families. They pay too much for shelter, medical care, child care, transportation and education. Another way of expressing the problem is to say that many middle-class parents work too hard and too long, and they do not get paid enough for their efforts.
The minimum wage is supposed to address low compensation but it does not. For less-skilled workers, possibly the best thing we can do is stop illegal immigration. Within a few years, that would force up wages, and with that would come the most gawdawful screams from New York to California as everything from Big Macs to housecleaning shot up in price.
One way around this set of facts would be a significant child allowance, one large enough to enable and even entice one middle-class parent in each household to stay home. That’s normal in France, but it is abnormal here.
Many other abnormal ideas abound for helping the middle classes, but will even an Obamian-like upheaval for change make enacting any of them more likely? Let’s hope so, or we can put our faith in the old remedies—cut taxes, outlaw gay marriage, encourage abortion or don’t, pray in the schools or don’t. Follow this formula and we’ll have a change, all right, but we’ll have a new normal that we are going to like less than the one we already have.
“The fierce urgency of now” is the phrase Mr. Obama uses to plead and demand that changes, long delayed and never made, be done. They never will be by politicians too long in office, and too rich and too comfortable to understand what living normal means.
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