Barack Obama, Class Warrior?


PRESIDENT OBAMA'S September 8 speech announcing his American Jobs Act and his subsequent proposal to raise taxes on the rich have a lot of liberals congratulating him.

Only a few weeks after threatening to withhold the AFL-CIO's support for Obama's reelection bid, the union federation's President Richard Trumka was right back on the Obama 2012 bandwagon. Commenting on the president's speech to Congress, Trumka said: "The President took an important and necessary step tonight: he started a serious national conversation about how to solve our jobs crisis. He showed working people that he is willing to go to the mat to create new jobs on a substantial scale."

Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has at times been quite critical of the administration, conceded: "I was favorably surprised by the new Obama jobs plan, which is significantly bolder and better than I expected. It's not nearly as bold as the plan I'd want in an ideal world. But if it actually became law, it would probably make a significant dent in unemployment."

Liberals who were even more vocally enraged with Obama's many capitulations to the Republicans were willing to forgive and forget. Michael Tomasky, writing in the Daily Beast, said: "This tax fight will be the great test of the Obama presidency. All else–stimulus, bailouts, financial reform, even health care–was prelude. The tax debate is the money shot. If he wins this one, all the failures, even the calamitous debt-ceiling agreement, can be forgiven. Mr. President: Show us the money."

For the institutional liberals who supply the machinery of the Democrats' get-out-the-vote operations on Election Day, Obama's "pivot" toward jobs gives them something to motivate their demoralized supporters about for 2012. Once again, a few empty words from Obama were enough for Trumka to forget his threats to punish an administration that has done virtually nothing to address the jobs crisis.

ust as predictable as liberals rallying round Obama were the voices from Republicans and conservative Democrats decrying or lamenting Obama's "class warfare." Right-wing Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin–a class warrior for the rich–told Fox News Sunday, "Class warfare may make for good politics, but it makes for rotten economics. We don't need a system that seeks to divide people. We don't need a system that seeks to prey on people's fear, envy and anxiety."

Mark Penn, the corporate-money-grubbing pollster and pundit who advised Hillary Clinton during her failed 2008 run for the Democratic presidential nomination against Obama, warned:

America is…upset with Obama, who they elected to bring the parties together in the Reaganesque style he championed as a candidate and bring a new generation to government. Instead, they see a tax-and-spend liberal trying to take taxes and spending to new levels. The independents and upper middle class voters who were with him last time are abandoning him in droves.

What Penn doesn't tell you is that Clinton and Obama had the same position on ending the Bush tax cuts in 2008. And the mythical "independent" voters whom Beltway pundits always cite as the reason why Democrats have to move rightwards were the supposed audience for Obama's "adult in the room" posture during the July/August fiasco over the federal debt ceiling. That didn't really work out too well, did it?

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THE BELTWAY punditry's worries about Obama's "turn to the left" are so far removed from the actual views of ordinary Americans as to be laughable.

A Gallup poll, for example, showed that Americans support increased taxes on the rich by a factor of two-to-one (66 percent in favor, 32 percent opposed), and all but one of the major points of Obama's plan attracted no less than 56 percent support, with most of them receiving support from more than seven out of 10 Americans.

But while Obama's plans may be popular, they have a "too little, too late," feel about them.

Take the jobs legislation itself. The majority of the proposed $457 billion the president wants to spend comes from extending the current payroll tax cut to include employers, plus adding in a few other tax incentives to corporations for hiring. In other words, the majority of spending in the bill either continues policies that have already proven insufficient to deal with the jobs crisis, or introduces more the same type of policies from the 2009 stimulus package that clearly wasn't enough to stem long-term unemployment.

And extending unemployment benefits, while necessary, is about providing basic support for the unemployed–not providing them with jobs at living wages.

The bill allots $30 billion to avoid teachers' layoffs and rebuild crumbling schools. Another $50 billion is supposed to pay for repairing and rebuilding infrastructure. While these are welcome changes from the politics of austerity that have dominated Washington over the last year, their actual impact won't put much of a dent in the reigning jobs deficit. Despite population increases and an economic "recovery" since 2009, fewer Americans hold jobs today than they did in 2007.

Beyond all that, though, there's little chance that most of the American Jobs Act will pass the Congress, gripped as it is with austerity fever.

But that's secondary to the White House. Obama's advisers believe that the president's posture of "fighting for the middle class" on behalf of popular measures will supply him with the main talking points he'll need to beat the reactionary Republicans in 2012.

The cynicism of this strategy is plain to see. It's obvious that the country has faced a jobs crisis since before Obama was elected. Yet the Obama White House has remained largely passive in the face of evidence that jobs weren't being created at a sufficient rate, even after the official start of the recovery. Its passivity certainly contrasted with the urgency it showed when faced with decisions to provide trillions in aid to the banks.

One might also ask an obvious question: Where was all this concern about jobs and ending tax breaks for the rich back during the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats held large majorities in Congress and could have, presumably, passed real legislation to create jobs? Even after realizing that the 2009 stimulus measure didn't bring down unemployment to the extent the administration hoped, it never seriously considered a 1930s-style jobs program.

Even if the White House underestimated the depths of the jobs crisis, that can't excuse the jettisoning of a central promise of its 2008 campaign–ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Nor the gutlessness of Democrats in Congress who refused to even consider raising taxes on the rich despite its overwhelming popularity.

And it can't excuse the White House's obsession during this summer's debt-ceiling debate with wringing from Republicans a "grand bargain" of $4 trillion in long-term deficit reduction–including cuts to Social Security and Medicare. That's why it's hard to take seriously the White House's more recent $3.6 trillion deficit reduction proposal that supposedly protects Social Security because it demands higher taxes on the rich. At the same time, the plan cuts Medicare.

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SO WHO is the real Barack Obama? The one who wanted to seek bipartisan and "reasonable" cuts in the social safety net in July and August, or the "fighter for the middle class" who emerged in September?

It would be facile to say that Obama is both things. Four years of experience should teach us that the real Obama is the Obama of the "grand bargain"–while "class warrior" is the costume Obama dons when elections roll around.

No wonder Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi says he can't bear to listen to Obama speeches these days:

Hearing Obama talk about jobs and shared prosperity yesterday reminded me that we are back in campaign mode, and Barack Obama has started doing again what he does best–play the part of a progressive. He's good at it. It sounds like he has a natural affinity for union workers and ordinary people when he makes these speeches. But his policies are crafted by representatives of corporate/financial America, who happen to entirely make up his inner circle.

If the Republicans manage to nominate a candidate who isn't up to beating Obama in 2012, Corporate America will know that it has little to fear–and probably much to look forward to–in a second Obama term.

Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History, a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party, and editor of The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays by leading solidarity activists. He is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. 

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