He came out of nowhere offering change you can believe in, and he won.
But almost everything he does is an irritating failure to act, a disappointing small measure, or a major giveaway to the rich. After two years it was no surprise that voters turned away from him in the Congressional midterm elections of 2010. Suddenly there was serious talk about a challenge to President Obama’s re-nomination in 2012, about independent candidates who could be real challengers, and about new political parties.
How did this happen and where will it go? Sorting through the first two years of his presidential term, we can summarize that Obama makes life worse for common people in four key relationships they have with the economy and government: their work, education, retirement, and healthcare.
Work: Nearly all of us depend on a job for our station in life. In the short term, Obama bailed Wall Street out of the collapse of 2007-08, but he abandoned Main Street. The few funds that went to industrial sectors came with punishment. For example, automobile workers were forced to give up the last remnants of middle-income prosperity in order to keep General Motors going.
Three years later jobs remain scarce, which brought extension of unemployment aid to the fore. We got some, but only by giving the rich and their corporations obscene renewal of tax cuts.
Would it help you if everyone who wants a full-time job gets one by constitutional right, if your first job as a young adult paid $42,000 a year, your wage went up $1,500 every year you worked (plus inflation adjustment), and after 40 years of employment you would make $102,000 a year?
That solution would be real change for 85 to 90 percent of the population. It’s not a dream; the economy has enough money to pay every single job at those rates — except that the rich take so much income out for themselves.1
Is there any alternative in between Obama’s soldiering for the rich and a society of no rich and no poor? That is the question.
Education: The Obama administration continued the bipartisan anti-education campaign of the last decade. For elementary and high schools, it is all about tests, charters, and blaming teachers.
Obama brought Arne Duncan from Chicago to run the federal education department. Contrary to claims, test scores in Chicago schools did not improve under Duncan.2 In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg’s school chief Joel Klein left just before revelations of rigged test scores.
Not that “honest” scores are the answer. The basic flimflam is that high test scores are defined as excellence, period. The anti-educationists cannot show that children in their charge have developed real understanding of words and numbers, skill at applying elementary scientific method to learn how things work, and motivation to combine individual initiative with group cooperation. Tests, rather than being an aid to mastering these activities, become the only activity.
Why are the rich on a relentless drive to impose a testing regime, privatize education via charter schools, and demean nine out of ten teachers? The narrow goal is to turn over the school system to corporate profiteering. The wider goal is to make education conform to a world of junk jobs, while training a special ten percent for business and so-called innovation.
The ten-percenters go to good colleges. Even this group is winnowed. Since tuition and fees have increased at three times the rate of inflation for decades, many students graduate as debt peons carrying loans of more than $100,000. The Obama administration, aside from a mixed record on Pell grants, just watches while elite schools become more exclusive, public universities scamper to do the same, and community colleges charge more money for fewer course offerings.
Occasionally during the last twentieth century, the school system and college network actually moved a step toward providing every young person as much learning and development as he or she wanted to work at. Is there any alternative in between that goal and Obama’s push for a cash-register regime? That is the question.
Retirement: The finances of Social Security are in good shape, but the hallmark program of the New Deal is always under political attack. That’s not a paradox; it is simply financiers lusting after a pot of gold.
In 1994 Congressional powerhouse Dan Rostenkowski (from Obama’s town, Chicago) proposed to raise the retirement age and cut the pension benefit.3 It didn’t happen, and later that year Rostenkowski went to jail for milking his House office funds by hiring phantom staff.
In 1998 President Clinton had a secret “Special Issues” group work out plans to privatize Social Security, cutting the benefits most people would get. Larry Summers, a top Treasury official for Clinton and later head of the National Economic Council in Obama’s White House, was co-chair of the group. Clinton decided he could not push their plans through.4
President Bush gave top billing in his 2005 State of the Union speech to another call for the erosion and privatization of Social Security. He failed.
Obama is on the way to succeed where Clinton and Bush stumbled. Last Spring he named a commission led by two fanatical enemies of Social Security to try again. Two months ago the commission called yet again for cuts. Obama has greased the way by pushing through a “temporary” cut in the taxes that pay for Social Security, and his administration pushes Congress to adopt the commission’s rabid plan.
The earlier observation that all jobs could pay $72,000 a year (or be scaled around that average during your working life) was based on conservative accounting. The same analysis shows there is also enough money left over to double current Social Security benefits.
The rich in general and Wall Street in particular insist that people must work longer, postpone retirement, and then pinch pennies as their reward. This is what they want while their corporations push employees in their fifties out the door. Seniors who want to work with all their experience at an appropriate pace instead must settle for becoming greeters at Wal-Mart wages.
Is there any alternative in between Obama’s war on Social Security and an old age of guaranteed comfort and real, appropriate activity? That is the question.
Healthcare: The signature domestic achievement of the Obama administration will almost surely be the healthcare legislation of 2010, all 906 pages of it. The law fills a thick book because it goes back and forth, giving health insurance corporations fat revenues, then trying by regulation to patch over the worst outrages of these bloodsuckers.
The Obama administration handed Aetna, WellPoint, and the rest of the corporate healthcare profiteers two big giveaways: an understanding that people must pay 25 to 30 percent of their healthcare costs out of pocket, and a mandate that every individual must sign up with an insurance plan.
The achievement for common people? Supposedly, the law brings 12 million uninsured people into Medicaid. Yes, the roster of eligibles will expand, but financing to pay for their care is not guaranteed. It’s up to both the federal government and the states to allocate the money for this jointly-funded program. Already, states are looking at cuts in Medicaid care in order to spread too little money over more beneficiaries. In California, newly elected Governor Jerry Brown just proposed to slash funding by ten percent and impose copayments on recipients.
Washington absolutely refused to listen to advocates of the proposal that we expand Medicare to cover everyone, enrolling them in a public program that has served people 65 and over well for more than four decades. Throughout the twentieth century doctors would rally to put a stop to such talk, but now physicians are so disgusted with the profiteering perversion of healthcare that a majority of them support Medicare for All. While the Obama White House invited the chief executives of health insurance, hospital, and drug corporations to write the legislation, doctors who stood up at Congressional committee hearings were arrested and removed from the room.
Is there any alternative in between the 2009 Obama parody of healthcare reform and the establishment of Equal Care for All as a basic principle of our society? That is the question.
Hope and Program
In 2008 the voters chose a Black man for president, giving him solid Democratic Party majorities in the House and Senate, too. The way was clear to enact change you can believe in. Instead, the new administration and Congress worked against common people’s needs for work, education, retirement security, and healthcare.
Typically, people do not pay attention to the elections until a couple of months before November, but the blatant hypocrisy of Obama’s campaign versus his governance, combined with persistent unemployment at depression level, opens the way for surprising political developments. The next two years could see:
- A challenge to Obama, the incumbent Democratic president, in the party primaries. The name of Howard Dean has been floated. He was a serious populist candidate in the 2004 primaries until the national media shut him down, using the occasion of a yell at a speech in Iowa to caricature him.
- An independent candidate for president. Like Ross Perot, he would probably be a wealthy businessman who can buy himself a campaign. Michael Bloomberg might do this.
- A third party. This development is less likely for 2012 than the first two, but in the United States, serious dysfunction of the political system has occasionally been resolved by party realignment.
Any of these developments would require, as well as encourage, new waves of common people to put energy into it well before November 2012. Should we do that?
The key to effective action is program, but with a twist.
It is not enough for a candidate to say, I’ll take back the economy for common people. Yes, a candidate must lay out good policies, but they are not enough. The key problem is the enormous economic clash between the rich and the rest of us. The rich have the money, and naturally they want to keep it and grab even more. The rich run the corporations, which serve as their wealth faucets.
A program that responds to this situation calls for a New Commonwealth. Three core principles define it:
- All jobs pay enough that no one who works is poor, everyone who works gets a comfortable income, and no one gets rich by ridiculous salary, business manipulation, or milking corporate wealth.
As noted previously, if we took all the personal income in the United States and paid every job equally, each one would pay $72,000 a year – and there is enough left over to double all Social Security benefits immediately.
- Everyone who wants a full-time job gets one.
Full employment is not a technical problem. We have known for decades how to run an economy at full employment.
- Corporations are chartered to run at breakeven.
If there are profits, they go to a social investment fund. Conversely, if a corporation consistently loses money, it is reorganized. Since everyone is guaranteed a job, this is nothing to fear.
These principles define the new order we need. It takes care of jobs and retirement. The commitment to qualify everyone for good jobs sets the task of creating quality schools and colleges for all. Finally, an egalitarian society implies improved Medicare for All or any workable equivalent.
Ninety percent of the population will gain when this country moves to a New Commonwealth. The problem is that the rich will not accept a no rich, no poor program.
There is hope after Obama. It is not an easy hope. After all that we have been through, and with informed foreboding about what the rich have planned, hope walks with a companion resolve to go through an unavoidable upheaval. Hope inspires resolve, resolve leads to action, and the results of action inspire hope. There is no other way.
Capitalism used to achieve new levels of mass prosperity, if not every generation at least every two generations. Common people got to enjoy a share of economic progress by fierce struggle within the system; the rich made concessions because they needed people to do the work of creating new growth.
That cannot happen now. While technological progress continues, industrial development for mass prosperity is no longer possible under capitalism. In the first half of the twentieth century, automobiles and the steel, rubber, and glass that went into cars and trucks provided millions of jobs. In the last decades of the century, semiconductor electronics and computers destroyed millions more good jobs than they ever generated.
No candidate will run for President on a New Commonwealth platform. The question is, will the campaign of a challenger to Obama in primaries, of an independent candidate, or of a third-party candidate be a step toward a New Commonwealth? A yes or no answer obviously depends on the specifics. It might be yes, support for the candidate helps; or his campaign might simply be the door to lots of discussion about the real problems of our country; or the useful position might be outright opposition.
We should expect the unexpected. We should expect initiatives outside the usual channels of politics that prevailed for the last 70 years. With a basic program, we can use new events as opportunities. Whatever the analysis of our proper action, the way is now open to show people what a New Commonwealth is and why our country is destined to become one.
For many decades, leaders of the left backed the Democrat running for president. Whether with enthusiasm for the candidate or urging “pressure” for more egalitarian policies, they argued that there was still an important difference between the Democrat and the Republican. President Obama has brought that period almost to an end. He made something clear to common people: differences between the two officially blessed candidates certainly exist, but so what? Obama — a continuation of Clinton, Bush, and so on back to Jimmy Carter in 1976 — showed us that the big problem is the oligarchy of the rich. We must topple this oligarchy so that we can guarantee everyone secure provisions and good work once and for all.
1 Charles Andrews, No Rich, No Poor, p. 151.
3 New York Times, April 19, 1994.
Charles Andrews’ latest book is No Rich, No Poor: Why a Failed Economy Must Give Way to a Program of Common Prosperity.