Friday, September 9, 2011

Obama’s Trojan Horse

In Thursday night’s Address to Congress and the Nation [1], President Obama seized the podium and, in echoes of Reagan to Gorbachev, repeatedly defied Congress to “pass this bill.” Congress is more likely to tear it down.

Obama used the occasion, first off, to appear aggressively in command. Congress is in disrepute and what better time to kick it when it is down? But Obama’s “in your faceness” betrayed his political weakness. From a truly powerful man, a wink or a nod is more than sufficient. Chanting demands is for the streets.

On the merits, Obama used the occasion to reclaim his tattered “progressive” mantle. One’s initial reaction could only be, Why didn’t he speak this way on behalf of a public option for medical care? The question contains the answer; but in order for it to reveal itself one has to first ask, What is progressivism ?

The essential idea of progressivism, by whatever of many names it might be called, is that the parts of the whole each and all operate for the sake of the whole. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it states a very different premise from saying that the parts of the whole each operate for their own benefit, or from saying that the parts of the whole should cooperate among themselves.

Americans have confused the three formulations and as a result the “progressive” or “liberal” or “union” movement in the country is itself in tatters. Contrast Teddy Roosevelt with Obama.

Defining the principles of the American Progressive Movement in Osawatomie Kansas, in August 1910, Roosevelt announced that “the New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage.” “Equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable... the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.” [2]

This formulation went beyond “levelling the playing field” or insuring that the competitive game was clean and fair. While progressivism included laws against “unfair” competition and “unsafe” profit-making as well as provisions for some redistribution of wealth, it went beyond the mere softening of hard-knock capitalism. Its fundamental tenet was that all components of society were answerable to the good of the common wealth.

In his address to Congress, there were moments when Obama sounded almost Rooseveltian. “Yes, we are rugged individualists” whose self-reliant drive built the world’s greatest economy, he said; “but there’s always been another thread running throughout our history -- a belief that we’re all connected... that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. ... No single individual built America on their own. We built it together.”

But Obama’s fine print told a more nuanced story. The immediate goal of the Jobs Act, he said, was “to provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled” by putting money into consumers’ pockets. The long term goal was to “mak[e] America more competitive.” The difficulty with this goal is that, from a progressive point of view, it is incomplete. It omitted the at least co-equal goal of making America more fair and socially secure for its citizens. Obama's goal-formulation subtly equated “America” with “business” -- an equation worthy of Calvin Coolidge.

The equivalency occurred more than once throughout his delivery. At the beginning of his speech Obama alluded to an America “where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in a while.” And further, “On all of our efforts to strengthen competitiveness, we need to look for ways to work side by side with America’s businesses.”

Such statements were a clear retreat from the concept of business as a “servant” of the commonwealth. They returned instead to the idea that parts of the whole should cooperate among themselves. The goal was simply to get the existing machinery moving again. The paradigm Obama announced was that of government helping business while business kept labor peace with decent salaries and benefits. This was little different than, “For God’s sake! Keep the peasants placid!”

Perhaps we are quibbling over semantics? After all, “why roam the world looking for better bread than is made from wheat?” Obama is certainly not a socialist. Whatever he does, it is clear he aims to do it with and through business. And, at a strictly functional level, progressivism has always engineered things with and through business, regardless of how it formulated its overall political concept or purpose.

However, the deceit of a Trojan Horse is that it looks like a horse and may function as a horse while it contains a secret, different and destructive purpose inside.

Obama tipped his hand midway through the speech when he stated that his proposed Jobs Act would be fully “paid for” through “a more ambitious deficit plan ... that will not only cover the cost of this jobs bill, but stabilize our debt in the long run. This approach is basically the one I’ve been advocating for months.”

The use of the word “more” was like a Greek toe sticking out from the hoof of the Trojan Horse. Was the Jobs Act really a “deficit plan” ? If the Jobs Act is paid for through an overall deficit plan, it becomes a component of that plan as much a closing loopholes, revising tax rates or anything else.

And the “anything else” which Obama has been “advocating for months” since he released his budget Fact Sheet in April 2011 includes cutbacks to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. April's budget fact sheet acknowledged,

“The President does not believe that Social Security is in crisis nor is a driver of our near-term deficit problems.” [3]
Nevertheless, the deficit reduction plan called for reduced pay-outs to medical service providers and for "adjustments" to Social Security cost-of-living increases.

In in his July 16th Weekly Address, Obama again elaborated on his concept of "shared sacrifice" stating,

“If we’re going to ask seniors, or students, or middle-class Americans to sacrifice, then we have to ask corporations and the wealthiest Americans to share in that sacrifice.” [4]
In other words, Obama's budget and deficit plans have always demanded that the poorest weakest elements of society "share" in the burden of reducing a deficit they in no way caused.

Last night, Obama all but stuck out a full foot when he acknowledged later on in his speech that the Jobs Act cum Deficit Plan would be paid for “by making modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid...” Why “like”? Are there other health programs that are significant? What other programs are “like” Medicare?

Anyone can compare Obama’s address last night with his April 2011 Deficit Plan. The bottom line is that the address was chock full of quotes and cribs from the Deficit Plan; and the core essence of that plan is to stimulate business while reducing the long term deficit.

However since the deficit was indisputably caused [5] by war spending and lower tax rates for the “corporate class” and since Obama proposes merely fringe adjustments to either, the difference has to be taken out of the hide of the old, the poor and infirm. That is nothing a true progressive would propose. Once again, Teddy Roosevelt,

“I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective - a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion.”

In contrast, President Obama has never proposed a genuinely progressive tax reform. Allowing tax give-aways to expire and closing "evasion" routes here and there does not reduce the grotesque income disparity which exists in the country. A key element of progressive thought has always been the belief that there can be no equal justice and no equal opportunity without equality of condition.

But that is not Obama's framework. In his view, America is a business dynamo and everything else is geared into making that dynamo spin. The reason he did not sound like a progressive in the Spring of 2009, is that he had no intention of substituting even an optional national health service in place of channelling funds into the "health dynamo" of for-profit drug and insurance, companies.

Polls show that the American people demand higher tax rates on those that own and control the economy. They demand an end to foreign wars and no cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare.

Those who enthusiastically voted for Obama hoping for a change did not sufficiently scrutinize his “puff talk”. Obama’s mephistofelian rhetoric is very good at insinuating an impression of what it is not. Last night’s was a stellar performance.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011

Linked References

[1] office/2011/09/08/address-president-joint-session-congress


[3] office/2011/04/13/fact-sheet-presidents-framework-shared prosperity-and-shared-fiscal-resp

[4] press%20office/2011/07/16/weekly-address-unique opportunity%20secure-our-fiscal-future



No comments: