Whenever Barack Obama gets around to making an affirmative case for government action, he is at his most inspiring. So it was on Thursday night. He talked about this nation being made up not just of “rugged individuals” but of people who understand that “we are all connected.”
In an almost direct rebuttal to the libertarian nonsense that spilled forth from the Republican debate 24 hours earlier, Obama made the case for public goods. He talked about the value of public high schools, of our research universities, of our community colleges, of the GI Bill, and of Social Security and Medicare.
And he asked where would we all be without these public goods, and how many people would have suffered without them.
“No single individual built America on their own,” he said. “We built it together.”
This theme of community, of the common good, we’ve heard too little of up to now from Obama, and it was refreshing to hear him lay it out so clearly.
It was also refreshing to hear him say that government “can help,” that it “can make a difference” in the economy right now and that he wanted to “restore some of the fairness” that’s been lost.
He was right to propose repairing our infrastructure, funding our schools, providing jobs for returning soldiers, refinancing federally backed mortgages at lower rates, and extending unemployment insurance.
And he was right to defend regulations against dangerous corporate products, neatly saying that American workers shouldn’t have to choose between a job and their safety.
But he failed to propose a federal jobs program.
He failed to call on the banks to halt foreclosures for a year.
All told, his proposals won’t make a huge dent in the overall unemployment rate. And some are ill-conceived.
The payroll tax cut that Obama proposes for individuals is actually pretty regressive. The top 5 percent of taxpayers (those earning, on average, about $550,000) will rake in almost $1,300 while those in the lower 60 percent (those making about $28,750) will take home only about $150, according to a new report by Citizens for Tax Justice.
Not only is that unprogressive. It’s also a poor way to stimulate the economy. Tax cuts “targeted towards low- and middle-income people would be most effective,” says the group, because they are the ones most likely to spend the money the fastest.
Giving companies a payroll tax holiday is even worse, as the progressive labor coalition Strengthen Social Security points out.
“Corporations are already sitting on substantial cash reserves; an employer payroll tax cut will increase these cash holdings without any guarantee of additional hiring,” the group notes. “Corporations were sitting on $1.9 trillion in liquid assets during the first quarter of 2011 (the most current data), the largest such sum ever recorded. Moreover, they made a record $3.8 trillion in profits in the second quarter of 2011. Most companies are not using their cash to hire new employees now. A tax cut will just fatten their bottom line.”
The problem isn’t that corporations don’t have enough money to hire people. The problem is that consumers don’t have enough money to buy the companies’ products.
Obama also urged Congress to pass free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea, claiming they would help bring jobs here. But NAFTA and other free trade agreements have drained jobs from America and mostly helped U.S. multinationals.
Worst of all, Obama insisted we needed to “reform” Medicare and Medicaid, preparing the American people for cuts in benefits that Republicans have long clamored for.
To pay for everything, he repeated his call for taxing millionaires and billionaires and large corporations. I agree with all that. And I’m glad he said it.
But most likely, those tax increases aren’t going to go through. And some of the spending programs probably won’t go through, either.
Instead, the tax cuts that he proposed are the surest bet.
As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz noted earlier this year in Vanity Fair, “the top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America, but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to redistribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes.”
I came away from the speech wondering why Obama hasn’t been making the affirmative case for government action all along. If he had been, he—and the country—would be a lot better off today.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Obama Talks Progressive Again on the Economy."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter