Lost in the White House

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday December 21, 2010 - 08:16:00 PM

Lewis Carroll wrote: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Carroll was musing about Wonderland but his words apply to the White House, where the Obama Administration has lost its sense of direction. The challenge for Progressives is to recalibrate the President’s moral compass. 

It’s been a terrible year for Barack Obama and the nadir was his tax cut “deal” with Republicans. Among Democrats there are three schools of thought about what happened: some feel the President did the best he could, given difficult circumstances. Others see it as a complete sell out to the monied class. I’m in a third group that believes it’s an indication the Administration has lost its way. 

For whatever reason, President Obama is adrift in the White House. As a consequence, major decisions are made in ad hoc manner, without any strategic coherence. That’s what was wrong with the President’s tax cut “deal.” Obama should have seen the crisis coming months ago and made sure that it was a major issue in the mid-term elections. But because the Administration was disoriented, they misplayed what should have been a political opportunity. 

Barack Obama has lost control of the dominant political message. That’s one reason why the Obama tax cut “deal” was a total disaster. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich observed, “the tax deal negotiated between the president and the Republicans… confirms the Republican worldview… Cutting taxes on the rich while freezing discretionary spending… affirms that the underlying problem is big government, and the solution is to shrink government and expect the extra wealth at the top to trickle down to everyone else.” Neuroscientist Drew Westen agreed, “[Obama’s deal] …eliminates any possibility that Democrats could draw a distinction between themselves as the party of the middle class and the GOP as the party that takes care of the rich.” 

As we trudge into 2011, the grim political reality is that the GOP has its act together and the Obama Administration does not. Republicans keep hammering on two basic themes: “government is the problem” and “trickle-down economics works.” Neither contention is true, but voters tend to believe what the GOP says because they are consistent, while the White House lacks a coherent message. 

It’s not hard to frame the Progressive response: Republicans are waging a class war. They are hell-bent on replacing democracy with plutocracy, where the rich write the rules and receive all the profits. America is becoming a third-world country where there is no middle class. 

Over the past thirty years, there’s been a savage increase in inequality in the United States. In September, new Census figures showed that the income gap between America's richest and poorest was the widest on record: "The top-earning 20 percent of Americans - those making more than $100,000 each year - received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line [15 percent]." It’s a manifestation of what Senator Bernie Sanders calls “a war against the working families of America.” The rich are getting a lot richer, while everyone else is sliding into the abyss. 

Even though it’s obvious what is happening, class warfare is a volatile theme. Nonetheless, there are three pillars of a positive Progressive message: 

1. We’re all in this together: In his celebrated speech to the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama said: “It is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.” The original motto of the United States was “E pluribus unum.” 

2. America doesn’t work unless we all work: The American economy isn’t healthy unless we all have discretionary income. Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and many other economists argue persuasively that the US economy depends upon steady consumption by working Americans. 

3. American Democracy depends upon a healthy middle class. This was an essential concept of the founders, such as Thomas Jefferson , who wrote: “The care of human life and happiness… is the first and only legitimate object of good government." If we don’t expand and protect the middle class, we risk social and economic chaos. 

Barack Obama has the ability to deliver this compelling message. On September 8th, he gave an underreported speech in Cleveland that echoed these sentiments: “part of moving forward is returning to the time-honored values that built this country: hard work and self-reliance; responsibility for ourselves, but also responsibility for one another. It's about moving from an attitude that said ‘What's in it for me’ to one that asks, ‘What's best for America? What's best for all our workers? What's best for all our businesses? What's best for our children?’” 

It’s this Obama that Progressives worked hard to elect. It’s this Obama that’s MIA in the White House. It’s this Obama that must be rescued. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at