He's partly right, but mostly wrong.
Calling for a slightly higher "Buffet tax" on those earning over $1,000,000 a year is hardly "class warfare" against the rich. As the billionaire investor Warren Buffet has acknowledged, the rich already pay far less in payroll taxes than the average American. There is no Social Security tax on income over $106,000 a year. The rich also get many tax breaks on investment income ordinary wage earners never see.
Even if the Bush tax cuts on wealth expire, the richest Americans will only return to a tax bracket of 39 percent from 35 percent. That's a far cry from the 70 to 90 percent tax rates on wealth in decades past. Nothing the White House is now proposing is going to change much about this trend dramatic shift in the tax system since World War II.
But the president is also calling for historic cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. It's hardly demagogic to conclude that such cuts in social entitlements that benefit the elderly and the poor is a form of class warfare, one in which the president is on the wrong side.
That's the thing about our current President. When it comes to improving the lives of ordinary working Americans, nothing he does ever goes far enough, including his math. Actually, that's a characteristic of Democrats generally. They'll talk and talk about how we need to stem the tide of foreclosures, create more jobs, or forge peace in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the money is never enough, the programs never adequate, the withdrawal of troops never quite complete. Then when the people get frustrated and think, maybe next time around, I won't vote for this candidate, this president, the politician schedules a talk at an appropriate setting,
Labor Day events are perfect for this sort of thing, where the candidate can resurrect his stump speech on "social justice" and "the rights of the working man and woman." The labor leaders love this, of course. It takes them off the hook from having to pretend they and the politicians they support are not doing anything on behalf of their members. Actually, it was only last month that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka informed the Obama administration it had better start doing something about jobs, or risk losing labor's support in the 2012 election. "If they don't have a jobs program I think we'd be better to use our money doing other things," declared Trumka.
Enter the President's Labor Day appearance in Detroit.
There resurrected was Obama the campaigner of 2008, firing up the crowd with a speech that included such phrases as "honest day's pay for an honest day's work," "fair shake," "the greatest middle class the world has ever known," "look for the union label," "giving everybody a shot," "good jobs with good wages," "give our kids a better life than we had," "we roll up our sleeves," and "we are strong when we are united." Obama ended his Labor Day oration acknowledging "times are tough." Not to worry, however. "I don't know about you, but I'm not scared of tough times," the president assured us. "Because I know we're going to be all marching together and walking together and working together and rebuilding together."
Apparently, the president remains confident enough to think 2008's campaign platitudes can still be turned on to equal effect. He forgets the public then was used to eight years of lead balloon rhetoric from George W. Bush. But now the public is used to, well. . . him. And our earnest man of the people has had almost three years to do something about unemployment. Instead of progress we now have an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, up from the 7.6 percent level of that inaugural month of January 2009.
That's 14 million workers looking for a job. Another 8.8 million are underemployed and nearly a million discouraged enough they've given up looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It all adds up to at least 16.1 percent of American workers who cannot find adequate employment.
Unfortunately, the present political landscape is so bleak that just getting around to talking about the jobs issue is somehow considered a triumph for the president. But the $474 billion American Jobs Act the White House is proposing is just not going to do what is needed. Even the most optimistic economists predict the plan would by next year reduce unemployment by at best one percent. That's maybe a million and a half jobs. Of course, if you think the main reason most companies are not hiring is because of payroll taxes, which Obama proposes to temporarily reduce for small business (following a similar reduction for workers), then let the celebration begin.
Then again, few economists are optimistic enough to think unemployment will no longer be an issue when these tax cuts expire after the 2012 election. Liberal apologists for the White House might also want to ponder what exactly is progressive about trading revenue intended for Social Security for some money in hand now?
The president's advisers must have thought it was clever to wait until the jobs plan was introduced before revealing the White House's other proposal to cut $320 billion from Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade. This is faux populism at its most cynical.
Under the guise of standing up for "Main Street," Medicare/Medicaid has now become a bargaining chip to be traded away for modest tax hikes that represent a faint protest against the long-term trend toward fewer and fewer tax burdens on wealth. Even worse is the idea that Medicare/Medicaid can be sold out for tax cuts on wealth that were supposed to expire anyway, first in 2010 and now at the end of 2012.
Yet on this Obama the Leader has declared his firm resolve, surpassing even George W. Bush's efforts to dismantle the "welfare state." With polls now showing the president's approval rating at 39 percent, the lowest ever of his term, it's hardly out of the question the Republicans could win the next election. For this the Democrats have only themselves to blame.
Ironically, all this recent populist talk from the White House is likely in the end to be effectively shot down again by Congressional Republicans. The White House knows this. It also knows it can then try to blame the Republicans for the fact that come next year's election the "Change We Can Believe In" has become the change we can barely discern.
Obama's most progressive supporters want so much to believe in him. The AFL-CIO, Move-On, and popular left figures like Michael Moore, all critical of Obama's cautious, conservative record since taking office, have in recent weeks turned a little Pollyannaish in their sentiments that at last the president is standing up for the people.
Obviously, they're easy to please. Why is the AFL-CIO in particular so full of good cheer? Their advertised "Action Plan" calls for investing at least $2.2 trillion in infrastructure rebuilding projects, plus another $2 trillion in modern clean energy infrastructure. The White House's job initiative falls far short of what labor understands needs to happen. Representing only seven percent of the workforce, are labor leaders just grateful Obama at least deigns now to acknowledge their existence?
Unemployment is not an act of nature, a downpour we have to wait out. In the end it is just a political reality, a result of economic decisions and political choices by those in power. Case in point: Both Democrats and Republicans approved $1.5 trillion for ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that have drained the nation's spirit and bank account. Imagine instead how that money could have been used to rebuild America's infrastructure, to create jobs and prosperity instead of death, strife, and chaos. The potential for a different kind of America is there.
In Italy, Britain, Greece, and elsewhere the rallying cry in the streets now is to reject the idea that working people should pay for a crisis caused by the rich and powerful. It is a stance that reverberates now among the young heroes of the growing Wall Street protests. The AFL-CIO and everyone who cares about social justice would do well to make that sentiment equally real in this country, to spread it far and wide and in ways that transcend the routine and hollow rhetoric of yet another election cycle.