Obama Phones It In for Labor Day

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Let me dispose at once of the idea that Obama’s ever going to do anything for labor other than bullshit. Check out this video.[1] It’s famous! And only 37 seconds long, so you can put down whatever you were going to throw.

Seen Obama on a picket line lately? Or ever? No? Are those mean Republicans preventing him from walking the line? No? So why isn’t he doing it? A question that answers itself, once asked.

Figure 1: Truly, this man is one of us!

Anyhow, Obama visited Laborfest in Milwaukee and gave the greatest Labor Day speech ever the other day, and I suppose it’s better to post on it than claw out my eyeballs or whack myself repeatedly on the forehead with a claw hammer or self-medicate heavily. Although the White House has a transcript, why should I give them the hits? So, Politico:

The president began to outline his goals for working-class families, saying that he has “put [his] money down” on the middle class.

“[OBAMA:] I want an economy where your hard work pays off with higher wages, and higher income and fair pay for women, and workplace flexibility for parents, and affordable health insurance [as opposed to health care] and decent retirement benefits,” Obama said. “I’m not asking for the moon, I just want a good deal for Americans.”

It’s just a con, and by a shop-soiled con man at that. Under Obama, “inequality in income gains is higher than that under George W. Bush.”

“[OBAMA:] Most [weasel] of the policies I’m talking about have two things in common: They’re going to help more working families get ahead, and the Republicans who run our Congress [well, except for the Senate] oppose almost all of them.”

As the crowd began to boo, Obama responded, “Don’t boo, vote,” a motto he has used before when directing speeches against Republicans as midterm elections approach in November.

“If[2] we had a Congress that cared about policies that actually help working people, I promise [what a kidder] you we could get everything done that we’ve talked about doing,” Obama said. “But until we have that Congress, it’s up to us to fight [weasel word] for these policies.”

(To be fair, Obama’s speech is not the most banal and bathetic speech given by a Democrat on Labor Day; that honor must surely go to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez: “We’re fighting like heck to raise the minimum wage.” Why is it that these Democrats are always “fighting,” but never winning? (That is, at the battles they claim to be fighting.)

To the extent there’s any criticism of this speech by Obama from the left — never mind the Democratic and nomenklatura or career “progressives” — it’s going to use a trope of Democratic weakness, and yes, I looked, but Ralph Nader had the only quote I could found:

“If you’ve got the Republicans voting repeatedly in the House and the Senate against workers, against consumers, pro-war, pro-Wall Street, the Democrats should be landsliding them, but they’ve got to increase the urgency,” Nader said.

Oh, Ralph! Ralph! Do you really think the Democrats’ problem is “urgency”? One of the true old-school bloggers, the great Avedon, quotes Thomas Frank, thusly:

Let me explain what I mean by reminding you of one of the most disturbing news stories to come across the wires in the last month. In a much-reported study, the Russell Sage Foundation discovered that median household wealth in this country fell by 36 percent in the 10-year period ending last year. Wealth for people at the top, as other news stories remind us, has continued to soar. These things are a consequence of the Great Recession, of course, but they are also a reminder of the grand narrative of our time: The lot of average Americans constantly seems to be growing worse. The Great Depression of the 1930s was awful, but it set America on the path toward a period of shared prosperity. Our bout of hard times has had the opposite effect. It has accelerated the unraveling of the middle class itself. Now, you can blame the risible, Ayn Rand-reading Tea Party types for this if you like, and you can also blame the George W. Bush Administration. They both deserve it. But sooner or later you will also have to acknowledge that there are two parties in this country, not just one; that the Democrats held significant power during the period in question, including (for much of it) the presidency itself; and that even when they are not in the White House, these Democrats nevertheless retain the capacity to persuade and to organize. For a party of the left, dreadful news like this should be rocket fuel. For the Dems, however, it hasn’t been. Why is that? Well, for one thing, because a good number of those Democrats have not really objected to the economic policies that have worked these awful changes over the years. They may believe in the theory of evolution – hell, they may savor the same Jon Stewart jokes that you do – but a lot of them also believe in the conventional economic wisdom of the day. They don’t really care that union power has evaporated and that Wall Street got itself de-supervised and that oligopolies now dominate the economy. But they do care – ever so much! – about deficits and being fiscally responsible. Bring up this obvious point, however, and you will quickly discover what a dose of chloroform the partisan style can be. There’s a political war on, you will be told; one side is markedly better than the other; and no criticism of the leadership can be tolerated. Instead, let’s get back to laughing along with our favorite politicized comedians, and to smacking that Rick Santorum punching bag.”

Write this quote down on a piece of paper and nail it to your Democratic Congress critter’s forehead so you know where you can find it. Do not accept narratives of Democratic weakness! Politics is about values and interests. The Democrats are doing what’s in their (personal, financial) interest, but they are also acting according to their values.

Democrats do what they do not because they are weak, but because they believe in it.


[1] I totally love the backspin on “comfortable shoes.” Of course they’d be comfortable.

[2] If we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. John

    Politicians, like Obama, a Dem, are not into you. They are there to promote the interests of their 1% wealthy donors. They view the 99% as just a bunch of suckers to be exploited. But what about progressives like Bernie Sanders? Isn’t he a sure firewall against wealthy lobbyists? Take a look at this video to make up your own mind:


  2. Ned Ludd

    In 2012, National Journal produced a web site that showed the compensation packages “for 558 chief executives of trade associations, labor unions, interest groups, think tanks, and other nonprofits with a significant presence in Washington.” The page no longer seems to work, but as I noted before, the people who run labor unions and national progressive groups are wealthy. They may not be part of the .01% that run Wall Street and Silicon Valley, but they are part of a different income stratum than most workers in the U.S.

    Labor Unions
    Mary Kay Henry, SEIU – $305,309
    Richard L. Trumka, AFL-CIO – $344,850
    Joseph T. Hansen, UFCW – $384,847
    James P. Hoffa, Teamsters – $460,389
    Edwin D. Hill, IBEW – $485,453
    Dennis Van Roekel, NEA – $543,868
    Gerald McEntee, AFSCME – $668,727

    Not surprisingly, there is no urgency on the part of labor union leaders who have six-figure incomes to hold Obama to account. With lower taxes and a long-term rise in the stock market, they have seen their personal wealth accrue.

    1. Whine Country

      You are wise beyond your years, Grasshopper! What is the saying? It takes two to tango. Unions would not have disintegrated had it not been for this disturbing fact you bring up. To a large extent unions lost their favor when rampant corruption on the part of its leaders became the norm. From experience, union leaders pandered to a relatively small group of its members and the brotherhood soon morphed into its own imitation of the 1% vs. 99%. We have met the enemy and he is us. (You can learn a lot from reading the funny papers!)

      1. different clue

        I read a hint somewhere that a lot of the McCarthyist Movement was about removing socialist and otherwise militant leadership from the unions and replacing it with trojan horse mafia-fronters or country-club aspirationists. Has any detailed history of that been written?

  3. tongorad

    I recall reading somewhere that one of the biggest political challenges is to get people to believe that they deserve better. Strange, isn’t it?

    What is the psychological appeal of the austerians? I have a sense that it’s not just a misunderstanding of macroeconomics or propaganda, but something, for lack of a better word, spiritual. A sense of unworthiness? I can’t figure it out.

    1. tongorad

      I suppose one can’t over estimate the influence of our puritan origins. Our national orthodoxy is that we’re all Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (Markets).

  4. timbers

    Obama can raise wages today with the stoke of his pen. He hasn’t, because he doesn’t want to.

    Isn’t Obama’s wage freeze on millions of the federal workers that report to him still in affect as it has been for how many years now? (that he gave them a 1% raise this year doesn’t count because it included pension cuts).

    Is Obama’s federal wage freeze the longest of any President’s in history? (something to check).

    Paraphrasing the line in Witness For The Prosecution, I am surprised the microphone does not LEAP from his hand the moment he says he is for increasing American wages!

  5. Ed

    I’m going to kind of defend Obama.

    The US has a partially unwritten constitution. Under the current unwritten constitution, the President proposes legislation about any subject of interest and submits it to Congress, which generally passes it after exacting a sufficient price in pork and bribes. So the President can give speeches proposing a higher minimum wage, and the question is why he hasn’t done the necessary bribery and arm twisting to get the Congressional stamp of approval.

    Under the written Constitution, and the way things generally operated until the Great Depression, Congress can pass whatever minimum wage it wants, and the Department of Labor has to enforce it, and its really not the business of the President or the Secretary of Labor to tell Congress what policies to enact. This assumes the minimum wage is a federal responsibility in the first place.

    Maybe Obama has made some attepts to follow the Constitution as written, but then he should keep his mouth shut. As for the increased inequality, that is what happens when officials print a ton of money and give it to their friends.

    1. Paul Niemi

      Right now, all legislation proposed by the President is labelled “dead on arrival” in the House. It wasn’t always this way, but the House won’t act on anything not supported by a majority of the members of the majority party, as led by John Boehner. Neither can the President force the House by vetoing other legislation, because all of that is carefully wrapped in continuing resolutions to fund the government, which are delivered to the President’s desk at the last possible moment on Christmas Eve, and the President is not going to choose to shut down the government to force his own legislation. So it’s a stalemate, but if the voters throw the bums out in November, at least that will stir the pot.

      1. Whine Country

        Your observation is correct. However, as Joe Kennedy proposed: “Don’t get mad, get even”. Under the same unwritten laws principle, there are many ways a President can get even with congress. Yet Obama prefers to do PR and play golf. Good Presidents know that sometimes you fight fire with fire, and given the right person (or personality) just the threat of doing so does wonders. The truth is that Obama created his legacy – Obama care – began full time campaigning for a second term, and then instituted the four corner offense (a basketball term for stalling) to run out the clock on his presidency.

        1. Paul Niemi

          Let’s see what the President does in the month leading up to the election. If he is sincere about legislative priorities, he will be all over the country every day campaigning for his party’s candidates. If he is just the flip side of a coin or a player of good cop/bad cop, he may make a semblance of campaigning yet spend most of his time on other matters. There is no doubt this is an enigmatic person, to whom many persons ascribe traits that they prefer. Myself, I have been around long enough to know that waiting a few years beyond the end of his term will reveal much I didn’t know.

          1. different clue

            Much will be revealed by who-in-detail gives him how-much-money in detail. Also what boards he is invited onto and partnerships he is cut into. If he isn’t made at least a small partner in the Carlyle Group, what does that say?

    2. TedWa

      He knows that anything he’s for will not get through Congress. Is this possibly a way for him to appear empathetic while knowing all along that any parade he gets out in front of ends up marching into the dirt? To him, appearances are everything and his appearance matters more to him than any of our trivial concerns. Just look at the differences between what he says and what he does.

      I agree if he really is for a raise in the minimum wage he should shut up and do some covert work in the background to get the ball rolling behind the scenes. BUT, behind the scenes he would not receive any accolades – so he just can’t do it, his ego won’t allow that. His ego must be satisfied before he can turn his back.

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      I don’t think the issue is Constitutional, written or unwritten. If the Democrats were serious about their professed commitments, they had two avenues to get the necesssary legislation passed in 2009: Exercising the nuclear option to abolish the filibuster, and reconciliation tactics. Neither were used. And this when the Republicans were thoroughly discredited, the greatest orator of our time had a mandate, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and everybody agreed the country was in terrible shape, which it was. If Democrats do nothing under th best possible conditions, what can we expect them to do today? You don’t bat zero for the season without a plan, as the saying goes.

      1. timbers

        Yes to that, Lambert.

        IMO, dem anger be directed at Republicans is a waste because Repubs don’t care what dems think. If anything, dem anger should be directed at Obama and dems, because presumably they will listen a tiny bit more?

        And, the reality of what you said is why I personally lose patience with those who voice support for establishment dems like Obama or Hillary, than I do at Republicans. People like Rachel Maddow or Markos (Kos) who refuse to see the full extend of the damage and duplicity of these dems.

        1. Ned Ludd

          “I used to say to our audiences: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!’” — I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, by Upton Sinclair

  6. Ed

    The US doesn’t have a party system. It has a good cop bad cop routine. But maybe this has to be pointed out repeatedly for people to get it.

  7. Globus Pallidus XI

    Con artists target needy people, and when the con is over, they just pull the rug out from under them. That pretty much describes Obama, how after 8 years of Dubya he sold the American public a bill of goods, and why he is now so ‘distant’. The con is over, he did what he was paid to do, and he can just phone it it before he cashes out at the end of his last term. The real question is: are people going to keep on being chumps and vote for the equally despicable Hilary Clinton?


    1. Screwball

      Of course they will. Or they will vote for the other despicable party. Which one depends on what tribe you hate the most. People would rather have a despicable person of their tribe than a despicable person of the other tribe.

      Once the vote is counted, < %50 will have voted, and < %2 percent will have voted outside of the two despicable parties.

      Then they have 2 years to bitch until they get to do it all over again. Insanity defined.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        Ha. You got there first. I’d point out that career “progressives” are absolute masters of cooling the mark. In fact, they got to work immediately after the 2009 inaugural. Remember “He’s only been President ___ days”? Or the next one: “The President is not a dictator”? Good times. But “his heart is in the right place”!

        Adding… Here’s Aaron Swartz on cooling the mark.

  8. John

    Its incredible the lengths at which Obama tries to position himself as some sort of progressive on the end stretch to the Nov elections. I just got an alert from the Military Officer Association warning of the following http://ht.ly/AYPtq:

    Alexandria, Va. — The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) strongly objects to the Administration’s proposal to again cap military pay below private sector pay growth.

    On August 29, President Obama sent a letter to Congress asking for a 1% pay cap for uniformed service members and federal civilian employees. This pay cap is .8% lower than that of private sector growth and is the second year in a row of capping pay for the men and women in uniform who are still at war.

    “We understand that the Pentagon is forced to confront sequestration, but a second year of military pay caps is not the answer to the Nation’s budget troubles,” MOAA president Vice Adm. Norb Ryan said.

    “Pay raises for the military, just like those of average Americans, are important for retention. It’s a fundamental principle of sustaining the all-volunteer force,” Ryan stated.

    Congress has closed the gap between private sector and military pay over the last 14 years. It put military pay raises into law in 2003 and tied those raises to private sector pay growth while keeping military personnel costs to one-third of the DOD budget, the same as it’s been for the past 30 years.

    “All Americans should care,” Ryan continued. “We said it last year. History has shown that once Congress starts accepting proposals to cap military pay below private sector growth, those caps continue until retention and readiness are compromised.”

    The House of Representatives rejected the President’s pay raise proposal for FY 2015, suggesting a raise of 1.8%. The Senate supported the President’s cap of 1%.

    “We are still at war. We are engaged in operations in Afghanistan, Syria, and again in Iraq,” Ryan said. “This is an extremely poor message to send to our men and women in uniform who are sacrificing the most for the remaining 99 percent of Americans.”

    Obama has decimated federal worker salaries over the past several years. Sure, Congress appropriates but when the CINC pushes for pay freezes, he often gets what he wants. He is able to get away with this because federal pay is a non-issue for most voters. Besides, the media is always there to lend a helping hand in describing it as lavish. Oh, we can’t forget the CBO with their scary the sky will fall forecasts!

    This, of course, brings up the issue of race. Obama, for some reason, has had it in for blacks since stepping foot into the White House. He knows full well many blacks take federal jobs at a higher percentage than the national average for a variety of reasons. Limiting pay raises has a direct impact on black workers. So, why does he do it? Why, why, why?

    1. different clue

      Perhaps he feels such utter contempt for the black voters who bought the con that he was one of them racially that he can’t help but heap such insults upon them to show them the depth of his despisement for them.

  9. DJG

    How dare you invoke Ralph Nader? Isn’t he the cause of the whole crisis, in official liberal-ish-Dem demonology? Nader and his horrifying effect on Democrats aside, Obama has a few problems going in: He’s a lawyer, and lawyers have no idea how work works. He simply has no training in practical economics: Quelle surprise, Larry Summers (rather than, say, an occasional talk with Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz). He also went into the presidency with no history of passing legislation, and quelle surprise, he will leave the presidency with no history of passing legislation. And he’s basically the ineffective boss that we’ve all had, who talks a good line about rewarding the little people and such–so I can assure you that he’ll be great when he gets to fill the Sam Nunn seat on the board of General Electric.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      The Democrats lost Florida because 308,000 Democrats voted for Bush, not because Nader. (I know you are being ironic, but that 308,000 figure is too little used.)

      However, like Bush, Obama has been extremely effective. How is institutionalizing the God Emperor’s President’s power to kill American citizens without due process not effective? How is orchestrating a 17-city paramilitary crackdown on Occupy not effective? Examples just off the top of my head.

      Do not accept narratives of Democratic weakness. That’s the point of the post!

      1. neo-realist

        This is not to say that Gore would been a transcendent President, but there was a whole lot of voter disenfranchisement/tossing of votes/non counting of votes of people of color that also made the difference in the FL count.

        1. different clue

          And that local democrat idiot who designed that butterfly ballot in such a way that a hundred thousand Gore wanna-voters voted for what turned out to be Buchanan instead. Even Buchanan recognized it was an accident.

          The fact that Nader was acting in complete bad faith and that defeating Gore in order to get Bush elected is another matter. Noting that bigger things and forces than Nader is what got Gore defeated doesn’t change the fact that Nader did his pathetic best to add to Gore’s losses. Just because Nader was ineffectual in his mission to get Bush elected doesn’t mean he was anything less than entirely nasty in his desire to see Bush elected. Certain worshipful Nader nostalgiasts and apologists don’t want to hear that either. Or see it written.

          1. hunkerdown

            Nader wasn’t trying to block Gore, he was trying to save us from Lieberman.

            Also, your two-party-tardism is old and tired. If you really think pledging fealty to oligarchs is power, put the 50 Shades away.

            1. different clue

              Nader was trying to block Gore out of personal spite. So Nader strained at a Lieberman and swallowed a Cheney? Okay fine.
              I remember on a train ride once listening to someone complain about how truly awful the Cheney Bush Administration was turning out to be. I asked him who he voted for. He voted for Nader. I said “don’t blame me, I voted for Gore.” It was a modest bit of fun.
              And thank you for your free advice. It’s worth every cent.

  10. beene

    Obama has improved medical Insurance standards to almost the degree that they function like a legitimate company after operating worse than the mafia, as the mafia only took a taste. Where in the past medical insurance often canceled when your coverage when it was needed. This in spite of the fact Medicare and Medicaid (taxpayers/government) were picking up the bill for end of life care or medically disabled younger people, where the major expenses for health care occur. Tell me why a parasite like medical insurance is allowed to exist.

  11. Jackrabbit

    >> Money is NOT speech

    Its an amplifier, which can be regulated.

    >> Corporations are NOT people

    They are legal fictions.

    >> Countries are NOT exceptional!

    Especially when exceptional! is code for inherently superior and used as an excuse to do whatever.

    >> Privacy is a Right not an Option

    Pervasive spying is mental rape

    H O P</a.

  12. Greg T

    Barack Obama is the apotheosis of the Democratic Party. Speech as a substitute for good policy. It’s actually more than that. It’s speech as a deceptive cloak over bad policy. Democratic politicians love paying homage to organized labor, while their policies continue to decimate it.

    This post is excellent and can’t be read too often. Democrats have been ” spineless ” for twenty five years. This constitutes not spinelessness, but complicity.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yikes! My bad, fixed. (Avedon is still great, however.) Frank– er, Frankly, it never occurred to me the quote was Frank, because how can he write this and then write the other stuff he writes?

  13. Paul Harvey Oswald

    I’m hardly a radical, but I’m convinced the financial situation will carry on here in the US until we stop working. Voting has not been effective. (And I do vote.)

  14. jrs

    But they don’t EVEN care about deficits and being “fiscally responsible”. Because endless wars get all the money they need. So it’s not EVEN that …

  15. Oregoncharles

    Thanks, Lambert. Excellent snark. Now all we need is an endorsement.

    (Shameless plug) Just in case anyone else is in Oregon: The Pacific Green Party has candidates this year for both Senate (Christina Lugo) and Governor (Jason Levin). There are also Greens running for House Districts 3 (Michael Meo) and 4 (Michael Beilstein), and a conomination for Dist. 1 (Steven Reynolds). And 3 State Legislature nominations: Senate Dist. 3, Art Krueger; House Dist. 23, Alex Polikoff; House Dist. 25, Joshua Smith.

  16. Alan

    Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while? Not really! Frank has written a lot of good stuff over the years, especially early on when he was running the Baffler, which is still excellent although he doesn’t edit it any more. He’s earnest and well-meaning, sharp on market fundamentalism, consumerism, and other aspects of neoliberalism, but surprisingly naive when it comes to US politics. Perhaps he’s hamstrung by his out-of-date faith in the essential goodness of the Democratic party. He agonized over right-wing populism in has last book, Pity the Billionaire, somehow unable to imagine why democrats couldn’t quite seize that moment. The quote above does suggest that he’s starting to see the con, but I rather doubt he’ll follow it all the way to Glen Ford’s more effective evil.

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