The past two weeks have been a “Where’s Waldo” moment for President Obama.
He’s been largely a bystander while tens of thousands of American workers, joined by students, and community allies, marched in Madison’s snow and freezing temperatures, and slept on the floors of the capitol, to defend their most fundamental right to freedom of assembly and a collective voice.
On Monday, the President told U.S. governors: “I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon.”
But the President never addresses the heart of the problem, a clear statement of who is responsible for the crisis — the corporate class and the Right, aided by those like President Obama, who enable them. That’s the giant elephant in the room that remains missing in the “blame the workers” paradigm so often repeated by politicians and mainstream media alike.
Many of us recall the pledge made by candidate Barack Obama in Spartanburg, S.C. on November 3, 2007 when he declared:
Understand this. If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain, when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States because Americans deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.
We’re waiting. Nurses, who have been on the ground every day in Madison and at support rallies across the country, will buy his shoes.
Standing with the embattled workers would be an important symbol (and might even get more of the media to show up). But we need far more from this administration — and for that matter from the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill.
We need a clear message that public workers and union members in general did not cause the economic crisis or unbalanced budgets. Public pensions did not spark a meltdown on Wall Street. It wasn’t workers exploiting tax loopholes or offshoring their bank accounts that depleted public treasuries.
Over the past three decades there has been a massive shift of federal revenues. Individuals now account for nearly five times the federal tax receipts of corporations, numbers that were roughly equal when Ronald Reagan took office.
The states are no better. Overall, taxes on individuals produce about four times the revenues for states that corporations do. In Wisconsin, the ratio is about five to one — and that was before Gov. Walker gave corporations $117 million in tax cuts in January to create his current “I need to break the unions” $137 million deficit.
It’s well and right for the President to criticize “an assault on unions,” as he did in an initial statement two weeks ago.
But he undercuts that message by conceding the Republican and Tea Party rhetoric about the “tough fiscal situation we are in” while calling for even lower corporate taxes, and making deals to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, and expressing sympathy for governors, like Walker, who want to put their entire burden on workers and the poor.
Every time you hear the President or any other politician call for “shared sacrifice,” think about this:
- Corporate taxes as a percent of the gross domestic product are at historical lows.
- Corporate profits per employee are the highest on record. At $1.6 trillion, third quarter corporate profits were the highest figure ever recorded since record keeping began 60 years ago.
- The top 1% of the population had 17.1% of total after-tax income in 2009, the highest figure for at least 30 years.
- A one-time 14% surcharge on the super-rich would more than pay for the $1.6 trillion budget deficit projected for 2011 (according to the National Nurses United’s research arm, the Institute for Health and Socio-Economic Policy).
- And, finally, workers’ wages have been stagnant or falling for at least 30 years.
What more and more people are saying in Madison and elsewhere is that this is not about public workers. It’s about politicians funded by far-right zealots like the Koch brothers who want to privatize all publicly owned institutions in the U.S. and shift even more resources to Wall Street.
Let’s recall it was the finance sector, especially the big banks, not workers, who created the economic crisis in the states and nationally through wild economic speculation concentrated in the mortgage industry.
The “deficit hawks” on the far right are exploiting that crisis to push severe cuts in federal and state spending to “balance the budget” on the backs of those that can least afford it — people of color, women, the long-term unemployed and the millions caught in the mortgage debacle — when their real goal is to engage in a private-sector hostile takeover of federal and state government. At the same time, they are pushing more tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, which adds to the debt.
The real issue is a responsibility crisis. Those responsible for the economic crisis are being rewarded and workers are being asked to sacrifice.
Here’s what we’d like to hear the President say:
Bringing the deficit into balance requires a just rebalancing of the responsibility of the corporate elite and the rich. As a start, corporate profits need to be fairly taxed. Taxes on the rich need to be increased not decreased, and wages should be raised to a living wage, which would raise tax revenues and workers’ ability to purchase goods and services in the long term.
Until then, we’ll continue to say this President is missing in action.
Rose Ann DeMoro is Executive Director of National Nurses United, AFL-CIO. This article was first published in the blog of National Nurses United; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.