Saturday, February 16, 2008

Janesville: Obama Gets Down to Tax Brass

Janesville, Wisconsin, February 13, 2008: Obama gets down to tax brass. That is, to redistributing a bit of income and reversing the rising tide of inequality. So how's he going to build a "working mandate" for an unabashedly liberal agenda - mainly a set of income subsidies, risk relief and job creation measures?

The sweep of social spending proposed in this speech is pretty breathtaking. There's a series of measures to shore up the income and security of the working poor and lower middle class -- minimum wage with a yearly COLA raise, expanded earned income tax credit, mortgage interest tax credit, a tax cut for working families, payroll tax elimination for seniors with less than $50k income, $4,000 tuition tax credit, expanded child care tax credit, expanded Family Medical Leave Act.

Then there's risk transfers: required direct deposit retirement accounts, debt relief for those who went bankrupt because of medical expenses -- and, uber alles, subsidies to make health care affordable. Finally there's public investment to spur employment: $60 billion for infrastructure, $150 billion for "green energy" investment. Whew.

The conservative soft spot for Obama notwithstanding, their guns are sure to be trained swiftly on the economic package laid out in its entirety here. George Will, for example, is going to have to rethink his recent outburst of Obamania:
The way to achieve Edwards's and Huckabee's populist goal of reducing the role of "special interests," meaning money, in government is to reduce the role of government in distributing money. But populists want to sharply increase that role by expanding the regulatory state's reach and enlarging its agenda of determining the distribution of wealth. Populists, who are slow learners, cannot comprehend this iron law: Concentrate power in Washington, and you increase the power of interests whose representatives are concentrated there.

Barack Obama, who might be mercifully closing the Clinton parenthesis in presidential history, is refreshingly cerebral amid this recrudescence of the paranoid style in American politics. He is the un-Edwards and un-Huckabee — an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic "fights" against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.

Will is half-right. In the Janesville speech, Obama advances an Edwardian agenda, complete with a hat-tip to Edwards' precept that "this country should be rewarding work, not wealth." And he denounces tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy and the influence of lobbyists on the tax code and legislation generally. But it's also true that he presents this agenda as "an adult aiming to reform the real world" -- and avoids the demonization trap. His calls to national unity that many find so stirring and that some find vacuous are wrapped round his call to reverse the tide of income inequality that's been rising for thirty-plus years.

In fact, he casts income redistribution -- "at a time when we have greater income disparity in the country than we've seen since the first year of the Great Depression" -- as an imperative of fulfilling the American Dream. That's his key to winning the center.

There are several steps to this move-the-center-left gambit. First, Obama frames income redistribution at this time as simple fairness and a collective responsibility:
when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.
"Balance" suggests the center: the nation has careered rightward. "Responsibility" is a Republican buzzword -- but Obama applies it to the community rather than the individual. And "fairness" - who's going to quarrel with that?

One of Obama's favorite formulations is "we're not blameless." The 'we' can be the nation, the Democratic party, and even in some instances himself -- he's used this formula to confess to his own campaign's excesses in sniping at Hillary. At Janesville, it frames his economic agenda:
We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control. The fallout from the housing crisis that's cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington - the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it's produced.
Second, Obama makes it a point to acknowledge countervailing realities. At Janesville, he denounces NAFTA and calls for "fair trade" agreements -- without specifying how such agreements can include "protections for American workers." But he also grants:

Now we know that we cannot put up walls around our economy. We know that we cannot reverse the tide of technology that's allowed businesses to send jobs wherever there's an internet connection. We know that government cannot solve all our problems, and we don't expect it to.
Third, contra the WSJ's Daniel Henninger, who accuses Obama of purveying "a message that is largely negative...a depressing message", Obama casts the current "imbalance" as a temporary aberration -- a condition we have more than enough strength to fix:
But that doesn't mean we have to accept an America of lost opportunity and diminished dreams. Not when we still have the most productive, highly-educated, best-skilled workers in the world. Not when we still stand on the cutting edge of innovation, and science, and discovery. Not when we have the resources and the will of a decent, generous people who are ready to share in the burdens and benefits of a global economy. I am certain that we can keep America's promise - for this generation and the next.
Finally, Obama makes shoring up the working poor and middle an imperative of the "unity" he always affirms, and which is often ridiculed as feel-good puffery. Here, unity is "shared sacrifice and shared prosperity":
In the end, this economic agenda won't just require new money. It will require a new spirit of cooperation and innovation on behalf of the American people. We will have to learn more, and study more, and work harder. We'll be called upon to take part in shared sacrifice and shared prosperity. And we'll have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America's children.

None of this really new. Obama recognizes that. What's new, he tells us, is the context -- a time when income inequality has reached new heights, and tax cuts for the wealthy have reached new extremes, and lobbyists control legislation, and the national wealth is hemorrhaging into Iraq. On the level of values, he's calling for renewal and return rather than innovation. And like almost all U.S. politicians, he brings it back to the American Dream:

It's a promise that's been passed down through the ages; one that each generation of Americans is called to keep - that we can raise our children in a land of boundless opportunity, broad prosperity, and unyielding possibility. That is the promise we must keep in our time, and I look forward to working and fighting to make it real as President of the United States. Thank you.
Footnote: How can Obama pay for all this? Roll back some of the Bush tax cuts? Probably. Get troops out of Iraq quickly? Dicey. Forget about the $150 billion for green energy -- or, say, 90% of it? Probably. Question, Senator: what about military spending? Looked at any big-ticket weapons programs lately?

Related posts:
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him


  1. just found out about this blog and wanted to say what a pleasure it is to read. plus, your title for this post is pretty damn clever.

  2. Go Obama! Vote Obama! He would be a great asset to ALL Americans!