Obama’s Real Political Program

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The Providence Journal

Obama’s Real Political Program

You have to hand it to Barack Obama when it comes to having it both ways: He never stops serving the ruling class, yet the mainstream media, from right to left, continues to pretend that he's some sort of reincarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt, fully committed to the downtrodden and deeply hostile to the privileged and the rich.

The president's double game was never more adroit than during his most recent State of the Union address. Reacting to the speech, the right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer spoke on Fox News of Obama's "activist government" beliefs and his penchant for "painting the Republicans as the party of the rich" while portraying himself as the defender of the "middle class, Medicare and all this other stuff." Meanwhile, the "liberal" New York Times praised his "broad second-term agenda" as "impressive" and blamed the GOP for "standing in the way" of the many liberal reforms that the president supposedly wants to enact to help the poor and the middle class.

Yet the address contained hardly anything progressive: On the contrary, Obama's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to only $9 an hour - and not for two years - was a populist parody. Under the president's proposal, a minimum-wage worker supporting a family of three (two parents, one child) would make $18,720 a year in 2015 - barely above today's federal poverty line of $18,480 and well short of the 1968 peak, inflation-adjusted, of $21,840 a year, or $10.50 an hour. Combined with Obama's mosquito bite of an increase in the top marginal income-tax rate to 39.6 percent - restoring Bill Clinton's top rate would still put it at way less than the Eisenhower-era top rate of 91 percent - the minimum-wage bill insults the many millions of less fortunate people who voted for the incumbent. So much for "activist government" and an "impressive" agenda.

Never has a leading American Democrat (including the dean of "New Democrats," Bill Clinton) done less to promote "activist government" in support of less privileged people while getting so much undeserved credit for "trying" to help them.

Of course, I don't take this sort of hyperbolic commentary seriously anymore. If Obama ever had a "philosophy," it's about power sharing - that is, sharing parts of his plastic personality with the powers that be -- from the Daley brothers in Chicago who advanced his career, to the bankers and hedge-fund mangers who financed his campaigns, to the lobbyists and party barons in Washington who write his legislative proposals. Never has a leading American Democrat (including the dean of "New Democrats," Bill Clinton) done less to promote "activist government" in support of less privileged people while getting so much undeserved credit for "trying" to help them.

But as a student of propaganda and politics, I can't help but remark on how effective Obama has been at muzzling criticism, or even intelligent analysis, from the liberals who should be revolting against him. The other week I was reading the very pro-Obama Nation magazine when I happened upon "Defeatist Democrats." It was uncharacteristically critical of the Democratic Party and the president. With no byline at the top of the article, I found myself wondering who (now that Alexander Cockburn is dead) in the left-wing weekly's regular stable would write something as tough as this: "The decay of the Democratic Party can't be better confirmed than by the actions of its leader."

Noting that in the 2008 campaign Obama "championed" an increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 "but after winning fell silent" (even though the Democrats had solid majorities back then in both houses of Congress), the article went on to point out that after the 2012 election "Democrats privately blamed Obama for not running with the Congressional Democrats and refusing to share campaign money from the President's $1 billion stash." It quoted former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart as saying that "Democrats don't know what the party stands for," and predicted losses in the 2014 midterm elections if the Democrats pursued their strategy of "raising the money and taking care not to offend business interests by talking vaguely about the middle class and ignoring the growing poorer classes that are the Democratic Party's natural constituency."

Who was this mystery writer and why wasn't his name on the magazine's cover? At the end of the piece I found the answer, and the byline - Ralph Nader - who is among the last national political figures who will call something what it really is. His name wasn't on the cover because for liberals the Obama dream dies hard.

Lately, besides talking up "deficit reduction" and creating a "thriving middle class," Obama is pushing an even more ambitious and destructive "free-trade" agenda certain to weaken the middle class even more. The ultra-realistic Financial Times reported last month that Obama had put "trade at the heart of" his agenda. This means that we will no doubt see lovely bipartisan cooperation between the two enemy parties when there's real money on the table for their big donors.

Of the proposed deals, the most damaging for American manufacturing and decent factory wages would be the Trans Pacific Partnership, which if signed would follow on Obama's 2011 job-killing trifecta - the "free-trade" agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. More Japanese and other Asian imports would result, but Obama's cheerleaders in the media blur the debate by touting a supposed manufacturing revival they cutely call "insourcing." The insourcing "boom" is another administration fraud (see anything written by Alan Tonelson), but it neatly distracts people from the ever-increasing foreign trade deficit.

Preposterous though it may seem, Republican leaders in Congress, despite their simple-minded obsession with spending cuts, come off like straight shooters by comparison with Obama. As for Obama, well, as one of the president's former supporters put it to me, "He's one of them!" But if liberals like the odds for 2014, by all means, they should stay the course. They might well wind up with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

John R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur is the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine. An award-winning journalist, he has previously written for the New York Times, United Press International, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Under his stewardship Harper's has received eighteen National Magazine Awards, the industry's highest recognition. He is also the author of the acclaimed books The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy, and Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. He lives in New York City.

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