Watch what they do, not what they say

So, it’s an election year. I think I’m going to find this one more annoying than most.

It has previously been noted that President Obama says different things during an election year than at other times, when he’s busy cozying up with the corporate elite. And that the left has generally done little to hold him to account, and that on those rare occasions when someone does hold him to account, the reaction from Team Obama will be patronizing and condescending.[1] This is not a nice man. And we’ve now, on the national stage, been through the 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections with him. We should have already figured out who he is as we go into the 2014 elections.

It is important to understand that Barack Obama has done perishingly little to help the unemployed. He has uttered fine words about how they are his top priority, that he and his administration have been working every day to get them back to work. But to list his deeds tells a different story.[2] And for somebody presumed to favor workers and the middle class, he’s got some strange friends:

While some congressional Democrats have joined Grayson in blasting the retail giant, the Obama Administration has not. Asked whether the Administration’s repeated praise for and appearances with Wal-Mart hurt the workers’ cause, Grayson told Salon, “It certainly doesn’t improve things.” Then he asked, “What has Wal-Mart given the president in return? Or, for that matter, what has Wal-Mart given to the president’s constituents in return?”[3]

Obama likes Wal-Mart.[4] Yes, the very same Wal-Mart whose workers cost taxpayers vast amounts of money in social safety net costs because it neither pays its workers enough money, nor supplies them with health insurance. The same Wal-Mart that refused even to pay workers for the full time they worked. The same Wal-Mart that put out boxes for workers to donate food to other workers during the holidays. The same Wal-Mart that has relentlessly fought unionization and retaliated against workers who had the gall to seek any kind of justice.[5] The same Wal-Mart that resisted sending workers home even as temperatures in a warehouse dropped to fifteen degrees below zero (that’s Fahrenheit, in case anyone in the rest of the world is reading this).[6] Yes, indeed, that Wal-Mart. And not just Wal-Mart:

President Obama is giving a big economic speech at an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee later today to, as a spokesperson explained, highlight “an example of a company that is spurring job growth and keeping our country competitive.” It’s part of a tour highlighting the president’s commitment to the middle class, and Amazon eagerly played along by announcing Monday that it is creating 5,000 new jobs at its distribution centers nationwide.

The White House calls them “good, high-wage jobs,” and Amazon touts the benefits it offers workers, but many critics say Amazon, rather than being a model of the solution, is exemplary of everything wrong with post-recessionary America. When I called up Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, his first response to news of Obama’s speech was an exasperated, “Oh, Jesus.”[7]

Amazon’s also been painted as a pretty terrible place to work: A report on Gawker describes a Tennessee warehouse where employees take forced overtime and perform monotonous work with minimal break time, while a 2011 newspaper report on Amazon’s warehouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania, told of over 100-degree temperatures and “a pace many could not sustain.”

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.[8]

But more than this, Obama is a true neoliberal believer. These low-paying, abusive jobs largely replaced well-paying factory jobs as neoliberal policies advanced economic globalization.[9] Employers like having their workers scared and desperate for jobs; workers are more submissive and communities are more willing to sacrifice environmental protections that way.[10] And with the secretive trade pacts the Obama administration is negotiating, employers will be much, much happier, and not just because so-called free trade has made it easier to screw workers. What we in fact see is a president who seems utterly beholden to multinational corporations, even when the policies he advocates are a blatantly bad deal for everyone else, and who is accordingly seeking to impose provisions that could not be passed democratically not only on the U.S. but on broad swathes of the world.[11] In short, Obama believes, just as surely as any neoliberal, just as surely as any reactionary, that government is in the business of helping business against everyone else.

Figure 1. New York Times ad bought by the Employment Policies Institute, which opposes an increase in the minimum wage. Fair use.

Employment Policies Institute Figure 1. New York Times ad bought by the Employment Policies Institute, which opposes an increase in the minimum wage. Fair use.

But it is an election year. Indeed, as I look back, it might be more accurate to say that the 2012 election year never ended. So we’re hearing a lot about economic inequality and about raising the minimum wage. Some states and localities have even actually raised the minimum wage, and even some (not many) conservatives are arguing for raising the minimum wage, but at the federal level, any such legislation has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through Congress, so Obama can safely advocate raising the minimum wage[12] without any fear that his precious corporate buddies will be harmed.

Meanwhile, Republicans are expecting to capitalize on the lousy economy. This makes sense because Obama has in fact failed. House Speaker John Boehner cites a poll which suggests that people in the U.S. now blame Obama rather than his predecessor.[13] It is more than clear, over five years after the recession supposedly ended,[14] that Paul Krugman was right, that Obama’s stimulus was woefully inadequate,[15] as discouraged workers have left the labor market.[16]

Obama’s defenders, of course, blame the Republicans for obstructionist tactics. Such a claim has to be tempered by three facts: first, that somebody voted those obstructionists in and then re-elected them even after it was apparent that they were pursuing an obstructionist policy; second, that the Obama administration has been slow to recognize that Republicans would not cooperate; and third, that elites of both parties generally have very little reason to give a damn about the poor or the unemployed or anyone else facing disadvantage, that is, beyond keeping them bamboozled.[17]

This year, of course, is supposed to be different. With Elizabeth Warren, one senator out of 100, and Bill DeBlasio, a mayor, there is supposedly a new populist spirit.[18] But the smart money follows the money. And the money in politics promises that the wealthy will continue to bask in a new gilded age while everyone else suffers.[19]

  1. [1]Blue Texan [pseud.], “Ed Rendell Tells Democratic Base to “Get Over It” on Rachel Maddow,” Firedoglake, September 23, 2010, http://firedoglake.com/2010/09/23/early-morning-swim-ed-rendell-tells-democratic-base-to-get-over-it-on-rachel-maddow/; Blue Texan [pseud.], “Stop Whining, Liberals!” Firedoglake, September 27, 2010, http://firedoglake.com/2010/09/27/late-night-stop-whining-liberals/; Joel Connelly, “Obama to progressives: I’m taking you for granted,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 10, 2012, http://blog.seattlepi.com/seattlepolitics/2012/06/10/obama-to-progressives-im-taking-you-for-granted/; David Daley, “Tom Frank: Obama’s made left ‘futile and irrelevant’,” Salon, November 3, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/11/03/tom_frank_obamas_made_left_futile_and_irrelevant/; Michael Falcone, “Opposite Day On The Campaign Trail?” ABC News, September 21, 2010, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2010/09/election-2010-opposite-day-on-the-campaign-trail/; Glenn Greenwald, “Obama’s view of liberal criticisms,” Salon, September 17, 2010, http://www.salon.com/2010/09/17/obama_139/; Glenn Greenwald, “Repulsive Progressive Hypocrisy,” Salon, February 8, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/02/08/repulsive_progressive_hypocrisy/; Greg Sargent, “Liberal blogger directly confronts David Axelrod, accuses White House of ‘hippie punching’,” Washington Post, September 23, 2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2010/09/liberal_blogger_directly_confr.html; David Sirota, “Check your optimism,” Salon, January 21, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/01/22/check_your_optimism/; Matt Stoller, “The progressive case against Obama,” Salon, October 27, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/10/27/the_progressive_case_against_obama/; Matt Stoller, “Why is the left defending Obama?” Salon, November 3, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/11/03/why_is_the_left_defending_obama/; Sam Youngman, “White House unloads anger over criticism from ‘professional left’,” Hill, August 10, 2010, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/113431-white-house-unloads-on-professional-left
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Cold buildings and hot air: the Main Street choice between empty and hateful words,” Not Housebroken, June 3, 2011, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=3713
  3. [3]Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart arrests could fuel “a new political movement of the disenfranchised,” Grayson tells Salon,” Salon, November 29, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/29/wal_mart_arrests_could_fuel_a_new_political_movement_of_the_disenfranchised_grayson_tells_salon/
  4. [4]Josh Eidelson, “How Walmart got government support, despite union pleas,” Salon, September 23, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/09/23/white_house_rebuffed_union_pleas_to_ditch_walmart/
  5. [5]Donna Ballman, “Walmart Should Have Listened To Me About Firing Striking Workers,” Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home, November 22, 2013, http://employeeatty.blogspot.com/2013/11/walmart-should-have-listened-to-me.html; Democracy Now!, “Wal-Mart Workers in 12 States Stage Historic Strikes, Protests Against Workplace Retaliation,” October 10, 2012, http://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/10/walmart_workers_in_12_states_stage; Democracy Now! “Over 110 Arrested as Record Black Friday Protests Challenge Wal-Mart, Major Retailers on Low Wages,” December 2, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/12/2/over_110_arrested_as_record_black; Peter Dreier, “Labor Board Sides With Workers: Walmart Can’t Silence Employees Any Longer,” Nation, November 19, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/article/177254/labor-board-sides-workers-walmart-cant-silence-employees-any-longer; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 18, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/18/breaking_wal_mart_faces_warehouse_horror_allegations_and_federal_labor_board_complaint/; Josh Eidelson, “Senators blast Wal-Mart “trampling” workers’ rights as dozens of activists are arrested on Black Friday,” Salon, November 29, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/29/senators_blast_wal_mart_trampling_workers_rights_as_dozens_of_activists_are_arrested_on_black_friday/; Josh Eidelson, “Tens of thousands protest, over 100 arrested in Black Friday challenge to Wal-Mart,” Salon, November 29, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/30/tens_of_thousands_protest_over_100_arrested_in_black_friday_challenge_to_wal_mart/; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart arrests could fuel “a new political movement of the disenfranchised,” Grayson tells Salon,” Salon, November 29, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/29/wal_mart_arrests_could_fuel_a_new_political_movement_of_the_disenfranchised_grayson_tells_salon/; Josh Eidelson, “Finally paying for Wal-Mart’s sins: Wage theft settlement yields millions,” Salon, December 16, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/12/16/finally_paying_for_wal_marts_sins_wage_theft_settlement_yields_millions/; Allison Kilkenny, “Cleveland Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/blog/177241/cleveland-wal-mart-holds-food-drive-its-own-employ%C3%A9es; Joan Walsh, “Poverty nation: How America created a low-wage work swamp,” Salon, December 15, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/12/15/poverty_nation_how_america_created_a_low_wage_work_swamp/; Spencer Woodman, “Labor Takes Aim at Walmart—Again,” Nation, January 4, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/165437/labor-takes-aim-walmart-again
  6. [6]Josh Eidelson, “Freezing for Wal-Mart: Sub-zero warehouse temperatures spur Indiana work stoppage,” Salon, January 13, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/01/13/freezing_for_wal_mart_sub_zero_warehouse_temperatures_spur_indiana_work_stoppage/
  7. [7]Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/
  8. [8]Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/how_amazon_is_worse_than_wal_mart/; see also Hamilton Nolan, “What Is Life Like For an Amazon Worker?” Gawker, July 29, 2013, http://gawker.com/what-is-life-like-for-an-amazon-worker-949664345; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat;
  9. [9]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  10. [10]George Kent, Ending Hunger Worldwide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011); Robert Reich, “Fear is Why Workers in Red States Vote Against Their Economic Self-Interest,” January 15, 2014, http://robertreich.org/post/73471886666
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Biron, “U.S. ‘Stalling’ Could Force Acceptance of Onerous TPP,” InterPress Service, March 5, 2013, http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/03/u-s-stalling-could-force-acceptance-of-onerous-tpp/; David Brodwin, “Trans-Pacific Partnership Is a Bad Trade Deal,” U.S. News and World Report, April 19, 2013, http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/economic-intelligence/2013/04/19/trans-pacific-partnership-strikes-a-blow-against-growth-and-sustainable-development; Roger Bybee, “Yes He Did: Obama Plugged Trans-Pacific Partnership While Touting ‘Middle Class’ Growth,” In These Times, February 12, 2013, http://inthesetimes.com/article/14571/will_president_obama_push_an_offshoring_agenda_in_sotu/; Zoë Carpenter, “Keeping a Massive Trade Deal Out of the Fast Lane,” Nation, August 22, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/blog/175865/keeping-massive-trade-deal-out-fast-lane; Zach Carter, “Trans-Pacific Partnership Talks: Senators Demand Access To Controversial Documents After Leak,” Huffington Post, June 25, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/trans-pacific-partnership-documents-sherrod-brown-jeff-merkley-ron-wyden-robert-menendez_n_1624956.html; Democracy Now! “‘A Corporate Trojan Horse’: Obama Pushes Secretive TPP Trade Pact, Would Rewrite Swath of U.S. Laws,” October 4, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/10/4/a_corporate_trojan_horse_obama_pushes; DSWright [pseud.], “Trans-Pacific Partnership Will Remove What’s Left Of American Democracy,” Firedoglake, August 20, 2013, http://news.firedoglake.com/2013/08/20/trans-pacific-partnership-will-remove-whats-left-of-american-democracy/; DSWright [pseud.], “AFL-CIO Campaigns Against Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Firedoglake, September 4, 2013, http://news.firedoglake.com/2013/09/04/afl-cio-campaigns-against-trans-pacific-partnership/; Cliff DuRand, “Trans-Pacific Partnership: Free Trade vs. Democracy,” Center for International Policy Americas Program, April 12, 2013, http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/9355; Erika Eichelberger, “The Biggest Secret Trade Deal You’ve Never Heard Of, Explained,” Mother Jones, July 10, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/07/trans-pacific-partnership-explainer-free-trade-deal; Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement,” n.d., https://www.eff.org/issues/tpp; Kevin P. Gallagher, “Don’t trade away financial stability in Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Financial Times, March 6, 2013, http://blogs.ft.com/economistsforum/2013/03/dont-trade-away-financial-stability-in-trans-pacific-partnership/; Emilio Godoy, “Pacific Pact – a Minefield for Health Care,” InterPress Service, October 8, 2013, http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/pacific-pact-a-minefield-for-health-care/; Dave Johnson, “Multinationals Are Plotting to Steamroll What’s Left of Our Democracy to Make Huge Profits,” Alternet, August 20, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/economy/huge-multinationals-are-plotting-steamroll-our-democracy-their-hunt-profits; Brandon Karns, “Secret TPP Meetings Could Ban GMO Labeling,” Project Censored, December 2, 2013, http://www.projectcensored.org/secret-tpp-meetings-ban-gmo-labeling/; Elaine Magliaro, “President Obama Trying to “Fast Track” the Trans Pacific Partnership—a Trade Pact That Could Be Worse Than NAFTA,” JonathanTurley.org, September 28, 2013, http://jonathanturley.org/2013/09/28/president-obama-trying-to-fast-track-the-trans-pacific-partnership-a-trade-pact-that-could-be-worse-than-nafta/; Andrew Gavin Marshall, “Why So Secretive? The Trans-Pacific Partnership as Global Coup,” Truthout, November 25, 2012, http://truth-out.org/news/item/12934-why-so-secretive?-the-trans-pacific-partnership-as-global-coup; Alejandro Nada, “Threat of the Trans-Pacific Agreement,” Center for International Policy Americas Program, April 23, 2013, http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/9416; Dawn Paley, “Tremendous Pharmaceutical Profits or Totally Protected Plunder?” Center for International Policy Americas Program, April 17, 2013, http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/9369; Arthur Stamoulis, “Seven Reasons to Fight the TPP,” Center for International Policy Americas Program, April 12, 2013, http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/9349; Yves Smith, “More Obama Administration Secrecy: Rep. Grayson Can’t Discuss Classified Trans-Pacific Partnership Draft,” Naked Capitalism, June 19, 2013, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/06/more-obama-administration-secrecy-rep-grayson-sees-and-cant-discuss-classified-trans-pacific-trade-agreement-draft.html; SumOfUs, “The secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership,” n.d., http://action.sumofus.org/a/harper-secret-deal/; Maira Sutton, “The Secrecy Must Be Stopped: Congress Members Probe USTR on the Confidential TPP Negotiations,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, September 27, 2012, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/09/TPP-secrecy-must-be-stopped; James Trimarco, “Will a Secretive International Trade Deal Ban GMO Labeling?” Yes! October 18, 2013, http://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/will-secretive-international-trade-deal-ban-gmo-labeling-trans-pacific-partnership; Lori Wallach, “NAFTA on Steroids,” Nation, June 27, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/168627/nafta-steroids; Lori Wallach, “Can a ‘Dracula Strategy’ Bring Trans-Pacific Partnership into the Sunlight?” Yes!, November 21, 2012, http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/can-dracula-strategy-bring-trans-pacific-partnership-into-sunlight; Adam Weissman, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership: The Closed-Door Deal To Establish Corporate Power,” Occupy Wall Street, n.d., http://occupywallstreet.net/story/trans-pacific-partnership-closed-door-deal-establish-corporate-power; Joe Wolverton, II, “Monsanto and Walmart Influence Secret TPP Negotiations,” New American, September 6, 2013, http://www.thenewamerican.com/economy/item/16480-monsanto-and-walmart-influence-secret-tpp-negotiations;
  12. [12]Jared Bernstein, “The Economics of a Higher Wage Floor,” New York Times, August 9, 2013, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/09/the-economics-of-a-higher-wage-floor/; Paul Krugman, “Better Pay Now,” New York Times, December 1, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/02/opinion/krugman-better-pay-now.html; Sean McElwee, “Sorry, neoliberals: Inequality is driven by greed, not technology,” Salon, November 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/30/sorry_neoliberals_inequality_is_driven_by_greed_not_technology/; Jennifer Medina, “Conservative Leads Effort to Raise Minimum Wage in California,” New York Times, November 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/us/conservative-leads-effort-to-raise-minimum-wage-in-california.html; Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt, “Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, November 19, 2013, http://www.epi.org/publication/technology-inequality-dont-blame-the-robots/; George Packer, “Black Friday and the Race to the Bottom,” New Yorker, December 3, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2013/12/black-friday-and-the-minimum-wage.html; Amie Parnes, “Obama pushes $9 minimum wage bill in visit to red state Texas,” Hill, May 9, 2013, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/298873-obama-pushes-9-minimum-wage-bill-in-texas-visit; David Siders, “Jerry Brown signs bill to raise California minimum wage,” Sacramento Bee, September 25, 2013, http://blogs.sacbee.com/capitolalertlatest/2013/09/jerry-brown-signs-bill-to-raise-california-minimum-wage.html; Ron Unz, “The conservative case for raising the minimum wage,” Salon, May 18, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/18/the_conservative_case_for_raising_the_minimum_wage/; Jordan Weissmann, “McDonald’s Can’t Figure Out How Its Workers Survive on Minimum Wage,” Atlantic, July 16, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/07/mcdonalds-cant-figure-out-how-its-workers-survive-on-minimum-wage/277845/
  13. [13]Russell Berman, “Boehner touts poll finding more blame Obama for economy than Bush,” Hill, January 14, 2014, http://thehill.com/homenews/house/195351-boehner-touts-poll-finding-more-blame-obama-for-economy-than-bush; Russell Berman, “GOP to use economy as midterm weapon,” Hill, January 15, 2014, http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/195482-gop-to-use-economy-as-midterm-weapon
  14. [14]National Bureau of Economic Research, “Business Cycle Dating Committee,” September 20, 2010, http://www.nber.org/cycles/sept2010.html
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