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Obama Pilloried for Playing the 'How You Gonna Pay for It?' Card on Progressive Agenda

"No president since FDR has been handed as many opportunities to transform the U.S. into something that doesn't threaten the stability of life on this planet. He has refused every one."

Former President Barack Obama cautioned a group of freshman members of Congress against pursuing policies that could be "costly" on Monday evening. (Photo: APEC Peru 2016/flickr/cc)

Former President Barack Obama on Monday night cautioned freshman members of the U.S. House against pushing for broadly popular, sweeping reforms by suggesting that voters will reject progressive policies due to their supposed high costs—despite evidence to the contrary.

At a meeting organized by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Obama told several first-term members both that they should continue to pursue "bold" policy agendas—but also injected the familiar right-wing and centrist canard concerning the cost of such programs.

"He said we [as Democrats] shouldn't be afraid of big, bold ideas—but also need to think in the nitty-gritty about how those big, bold ideas will work and how you pay for them," one attendee told the Washington Post.

The two ideas struck many critics as contradictory. Some slammed the former president for appearing to try to tamp down the ambition, passion, and sense of urgency many freshman including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) have brought to their work—hoping to combat a climate crisis fueled by corporate greed and politicians' complicity; a for-profit health insurance system which has left tens of millions of Americans without healthcare; and rising economic inequality.

Obama's remarks also put him at odds with a number of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, at least 10 of whom support a Green New Deal and a majority of whom have backed a Medicare for All plan, including several who have co-sponsored Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) bill in the Senate.  

According to the Post, the former president mainly expressed concern with how voters will react to progressive policies that require financial investment.

However, the majority of the public supports the proposals, and most Americans surveyed by YouGov in January said that the wealthiest people in the country and corporations should be taxed at a higher rate in order to fund a Green New Deal. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed by The Hill also said that the top marginal tax rate should be raised to 70 percent in order to combat inequality and fund progressive policies.

On social media, some critics added that Obama's comments crystallized the results of his two terms in the White House, during which he pushed for healthcare reforms that insulated the private insurance industry; bailed out the U.S. financial system without holding big banks accountable for causing the 2008 financial meltdown and leaving working Americans still struggling through a foreclosure crisis; and failed to propose ambitious targets for reducing fossil fuel emissions.  

"No president since FDR has been handed as many opportunities to transform the U.S. into something that doesn't threaten the stability of life on this planet," wrote author Naomi Klein on Twitter, quoting a 2009 article she wrote for The Nation. "He has refused every one."

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