No Tea Party Here: Obama, Democrats, and the Working Class

The Center for Working-Class Studies released the results of its latest survey last week.  As I look at the results, two things jump out: first, the President is paying a price for doing the right things the wrong way, and second, the conservative pundits like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hanitty, who continually characterize the Tea Party movement as a revolt fueled by a working class fed up with Obama and the liberal elite, haven’t quite been telling the truth.

Neither finding is really surprising.  Both may have a profound effect on the nation for decades to come.

To understand why, let’s begin with Mr. Obama.  For more than a year liberals have expressed frustration and disappointment with his inability or unwillingness to take advantage of the political capital he accumulated while capturing the White House.  His refusal to fully engage in the health care debate until the 11th hour, the decision to focus the economic stimulus package on Wall Street rather than Main Street, his apparent abandonment of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, and a number of other perceived failures have undermined his support among the Democratic Party’s base, including those who participated in the CWCS survey.

Since the first survey was conducted in May of 2009 the president’s approval rating has fallen from 87% to 68% among all respondents and from 87% to 59% among those who identify themselves as belonging to the working class.  Although his overall approval rating remains high, Obama and Democratic leaders should be worried about another number: the precipitous drop in the percentage of those who strongly approve of his performance.  Among all respondents it fell from 52% to 15%, while among the working class it fell from 48% to 11% — a 37 point drop for both groups.

Just as troubling is the fact that the percentage who strongly disapprove of his work to this point is now equal to the number who strongly approve.  For those who identify as working class, the numbers are only slightly more split: 15% strongly disapprove and 11% strongly approve.

The reasons for this considerable softening in Obama’s approval ratings are easily discerned from the responses to other survey questions.  While more than 80% of respondents have consistently rated the U.S. economy as bad or very bad, until this survey they also said by large margins that the country was moving in the right direction.  Their optimism in the face of the crumbling economy was based in large part on their belief that the President could and would turn the nation around.

That belief has clearly eroded over the past year.  Today, the percentage who see the nation moving forward has dropped more than 40%; more respondents now say that things are moving the wrong direction. The sense of unease is greatest among the working class, who now say things are going in the wrong direction by a two-to-one margin: 48% to 24%.

Why has the base’s faith been shaken?  More than 55% of working-class respondents say Obama has done less than they expected since taking office.  Three-quarters of them believe the stimulus package has been only somewhat or not at all effective, 78% say Wall Street and big business have too much influence over the White House, and only slightly more than 52% believe he cares more about working families than big business.

All of this bodes ill for Democrats because softening support and fading enthusiasm will undoubtedly equate to lower turnout among the base in an election in which the party cannot afford to leave one vote on the table.

Interestingly, though, the working class’s disenchantment with the first year of the Obama presidency has not, as some conservative commentators and pundits would have us believe, driven them toward the “Tea Party” movement.  Although Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Anne Coulter, and others on the right continually state that Tea Partiers are “real,” or “average,” or “everyday,” or “working” Americans who are fed up with Obama and the federal government, the results of the CWCS reveal a completely different reality.

For example, 72% of working-class respondents hold an unfavorable or very unfavorable view of the movement that conservative commentators would have us believe they enthusiastically support.  Eighty-one percent disagree or strongly disagree with the movement’s stand on political and moral issues, and only nine percent characterized themselves as Tea Party supporters.

And lest those on the right attempt to counter these results by saying the respondents to the survey don’t know or understand what the movement is all about, 93% said they had read about and are familiar with what the Tea Party stands for.  The fact is that working-class Americans know what the movement stands for and they resoundingly reject it.

The accuracy of the CWCS results is underscored by data derived from a recent survey of Tea Party supporters conducted by The New York Times and CNN, which shows that movement supporters are married white males who are wealthier and better educated than members of the working class.

This is not to say that the groups don’t share some positions or a discontent with where the country is heading.  Members of both groups believe the economy and jobs are the most critical issues the U.S. faces, that the economy is bad, and that the nation is on the wrong track.

Stark differences arise, however, when the groups are asked to identify the causes of the problems and their most likely solutions.  While a vast majority of Tea Partiers believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, they, unlike members of the working class, believe the economy is getting better.  Their discomfort with America’s future is based on their distrust of Washington.  Ninety-six percent say the federal government rarely does the right thing, 75% say Obama does not share their values, 56% say the administration’s policies favor the poor, and 73% would favor cuts to Medicare and Social Security in order to reduce the size of government.

Most significantly, 76% of Tea Party supporters believe the government should reduce the deficit rather than spend money to create jobs.  More than 77% of the working class believes just the opposite—they want the government to fuel the economy regardless of the effect on the deficit.

With these findings in mind, Mr. Obama and the Democrats need not fear that substantial portions of the party’s base will join the Tea Party.  The ideological gulf between the two groups is far too wide.  What they should fear, as the latest survey clearly shows, is that,  in the immortal words of Pogo, the Dems have met the enemy and “He is us.”  Doing whatever is necessary to improve the economy between now and November in order to reenergize the party’s base should be the primary concern of the administration and Congressional Democrats.  Failure to accomplish that mission rather than opposition from an inconsequential movement like the Tea Partiers, will spell doom for the Democrats.

Leo Jennings

Missed Opportunities: On Limbaugh, Bush, and Obama

In light of GOP tea bagger Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race—a victory that cost Democrats their filibuster-proof majority, doomed substantive health insurance reform (the White House long ago stopped calling it health care reform), and made it virtually impossible for President Obama to propose or pass anything that even slightly resembles a pro-worker, progressive agenda for the foreseeable future– my first blog of 2010 begins with a tip of the hat to two people with whom I usually disagree: Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush.

Let’s start with Limbaugh. There are few people more willing to bend the truth to gain political advantage than he.

And that’s why it pains me so to agree with his take on Brown’s victory.  Bloviating from Florida, the great prevaricator said that 2010 is “1994 on steroids.”  Unfortunately for the scores of Democrat political activists who are whistling past the graveyard by willfully misidentifying the cause and minimizing the effect of the GOP win in Massachusetts, “Mr. All Drug Addicts Should Be Jailed Except Me” is exactly right.

That’s because he understands that what Democrats and their working class supporters just lost is much more valuable than what Bill Clinton kicked away in 1993—94.  Back then the party merely forfeited its Congressional majorities.

This year it lost the opportunity to change America and the world.  With 60 votes—the Dems only had 56 when Clinton gagged on health care in ’93—a principled, popular president can do just about anything he wants.  Reform health care.  Re-regulate the financial industry.  Reinvigorate the union movement.  Dedicate billions to job-creating infrastructure and green energy projects.  Change the rules that govern foreign trade.  Appoint liberal justices to the Supreme Court. Pass real campaign finance reform.  Protect the environment.  Implement a rational, compassionate solution to the immigration dilemma. .

As Limbaugh’s remarks about the consequences of Brown’s victory demonstrate, he understands this better than many of the Democrats who have shrugged off the loss of the seat Ted Kennedy held in the U.S. Senate for 49 years as an anomaly or minor setback attributable to “tactical errors” and/or a poorly run campaign.  Limbaugh knows that by losing the opportunity to enact meaningful health care reform the Democrats have squandered the chance to prove that big government fueled by progressive ideas can solve the problems that beset America in the 21st Century. Truth be told, Limbaugh and his cohorts weren’t afraid that health care reform would pass, they were afraid it would work.

And now they’re rejoicing over the fact that Americans will never know.

That brings me to Mr. Bush.  Despite his many failings, viewed in the context of the health care reform meltdown, he deserves grudging applause for demonstrating moral certitude and the willingness to act upon it.  As delusional as he may have been, apparently the 43rd President believed that going to war in Iraq and hanging Saddam Hussein by his neck until dead were essential and righteous acts.

That explains why his resolve never wavered even as his stated rationale for going to war changed repeatedly.  Whether based on Iraq’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks (not true), on the rogue nation’s development and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction (not true), or on the contention that Hussein was simply a bad guy (true, but certainly not reason enough for the U.S. to waste the billions of dollars and expend the thousands of lives required to depose him) Bush remained steadfast in his conviction that destroying Iraq in order to save it was both justified and necessary.  It also explains why he was initially able to convince the public, the media, and Congress that he was right.  Doubters withered in the face of his dogged belief.

President Obama could and should have learned a few things from Mr. Bush.  Had he approached the effort to reform health care with the same moral certitude that characterized his predecessor’s rush to war, a substantive bill would have passed six months ago because the American people would have accepted nothing less.

Yet, after declaring reform the top priority of his administration, Mr. Obama relinquished control of the issue to Congress and stepped off the stage.  Predictably, as House and Senate Democrats engaged in internecine warfare, support for reform waned, especially when the Administration was forced to buy the Democratic votes needed to pass a watered-down bill in the Senate member by reluctant member, interest group by interest group.  Clearly this unseemly public display of legislative sausage-making at its worst set the stage for Scott Brown’s victory and all the bad things that will flow from it.

If Mr. Obama had simply embraced the Bush model and relentlessly and spiritedly fought for what he supposedly believed in, no one would have forgotten that both the AARP and the AMA endorsed the Senate bill.  No one would have forgotten that groups as disparate as organized labor and the health insurance industry supported reform.  No one would have paid attention to Limbaugh’s rants.  No one would have voted for Scott Brown.

Instead, Democrats now find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun held by members of a disenchanted electorate who are currently demonstrating a clear proclivity to vote for the party of no ideas—the GOP–over the party of badly executed ones.

And they have no one to blame but themselves.

Leo Jennings III

War, the Working Class, and the Media

The holidays are traditionally a time for reflection — looking back at the year nearly passed and forward to the one about to begin.  I’ve been doing a lot reflecting as 2009 draws, mercifully, to a close and 2010 looms menacingly near. I’m sharing my pain because, as that sage philosopher Ellen Griswold says in the heartwarming seasonal epic Christmas Vacation, “It’s the holidays and we’re all in misery.”

For starters, I’d like each of you to watch the “In Excelsis Deo” episode from the first season of the West Wing.  In it Toby Ziegler arranges a full military funeral for a homeless veteran who dies of exposure while wearing a coat that he had donated to the Salvation Army. You have to watch the entire episode, not just the two minute clip on You Tube. When you do you will be uplifted.  You will be touched.  Tears will well in your eyes and pour down your cheeks.  You will sob audibly.

When you are done crying—and you will whether you are watching for the first or the 100th time–you will be outraged by the sheer believability of the episode. Writer Aaron Sorkin didn’t have to make it up.  We all know there are homeless veterans living under bridges and in shelters in Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, L.A., and a hundred other cities large and small.

There’s no real reason why these men and women –many of whom come from working class families and served in the military either because they were unable to dodge the draft like Dick Cheney or because it was the best job they could find in post-industrial America — should have to live this way in the richest nation in the world.  But they do and they will and that’s wrong.  We should all be ashamed.

When your vision clears, take a moment and read two columns by Bob Herbert of the NY Times.  The first, “A Tragic Mistake,” begins thus:  “I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”  He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

I guess we will never learn.

Mr. Herbert asserts that committing an additional 30,000 troops to the Afghan war was the “easier option” for President Obama and says, “It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking — on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole.”

He’s right, it would have taken real courage to stand up and say “no” to the military establishment and the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Cheney, and the other conservative compulsive liars who have hijacked patriotism and distorted its meaning.  In fact, it would have taken the same type of courage to refuse to commit more troops to a losing cause that it would take to refuse a Nobel Peace Prize that hadn’t been earned.  But as anyone who has been watching over the past year has seen, courage and conviction seem to be in short supply at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the second column on my suggested reading list, “A Fearful Price,” Mr. Herbert bluntly and accurately identifies why Mr. Obama did not have to fear public revulsion over his misguided decision to waste more human and financial capital on a conflict that history teaches cannot be won:

The reason it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to continue fighting year after year after year, is because so few Americans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II combined. If voters had to choose right now between instituting a draft or exiting Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two countries in a heartbeat.

In that passage, he’s clearly placed his finger on something those of us who study and write about the working class have known for decades: as long as the people marching off to war are coming from working-class enclaves like Youngstown, East Chicago, Detroit,  Gary, and Compton rather than East Hampton, Beacon Hill, Georgetown, or Beverly Hills, the nation’s powerbrokers simply won’t give a damn.  They’ll just continue to invest in the stocks of defense-related industries because war is damn good for business.

Now that I’ve suggested a TV show to watch and two columns to read, I’ like to recommend a movie: Charlie Wilson’s War. This Academy Award-nominated film depicts how a bunch of nomadic goat herders and opium growers chased the Russian Army out of their mountainous, pre-historic country with the help of the CIA.  It also points out that these brave and brazen heroin producing shepherds have beat back everyone who has ever attempted to conquer their land—you can’t really call it a nation–from Alexander the Great, to Genghis Kahn, to the British Empire.

The country?  Well, it’s Afghanistan, of course.

Obviously, Generals McChrystal and Patreus, President Obama, and Secretaries Gates and Clinton missed this great flick when it was in town.  I’ve got an idea.  Let’s give it to them for Christmas.  It would make a great stocking stuffer.  Hell, we’ll even throw in some microwave popcorn.  They can dim the lights in the White House theatre and chuckle at the zany antics of the turban wearing Taliban who emerged from caves to blow the living daylights out of the Ruskies until those dirty commies turned tail and ran back to Moscow.

By the way, as the lights in the theatre come up they should consider this: the crazy guys from the Taliban are using the same Stinger missiles the U.S. gave them to blow up working-class kids from Minsk in the 80’s to blow up working-class kids from Cleveland today.

That’ll dampen the ho, ho, hos.

Leo Jennings

Politics is Personal: How Our Taxes Subsidize Walmart and Hurt Local Workers

We talk a lot about workers in this space— at the Center for Working-Class Studies and in our  Working-Class Perspectives blog—but for the most part we do it on the macro level: massive job losses precipitated by NAFTA and other foreign trade agreements; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; the Walmartization of  America; a stimulus package that pours too much money into the financial institutions that caused the economic meltdown and far too little into job producing infrastructure projects; weak unions; falling wages; vanishing pensions; disappearing health care; fading opportunity.

Sometimes, we’re too focused on the big picture to see how these macro issues affect people in our community.  We have a sense that government’s coddling of business is problematic, but do we really understand why?  We feel in our gut that a neutered union movement leaves working families vulnerable, but can we truly identify with the moms and dads who lie awake at 3:00 A.M. worried that their jobs may evaporate in a week, a month, a year?

Probably not, and that’s too bad, because if we can personalize the devastation caused when the economy stops working for the working class we may actually be able to solve some of the problems that are steadily eroding the American Dream.

For example, I firmly believe that health care reform would have been easier to achieve if, instead of talking about the 47 million people who don’t have health insurance, we gave the problem a face by talking about the 60 year-old woman living down the street who nearly died of colon cancer because she had no health insurance and could not afford to get the follow-up colonoscopies she needed after her first bout with the disease.

That woman, by the way, is my now 75 year-old mother.  She’s a walking, talking advertisement for reform: she had insurance when she first contracted cancer, had it cancelled shortly thereafter, was repeatedly denied coverage because of her pre-existing condition, could not afford the $3,000 per month premium for the only policy she could get, and finally made it to age 65—the point at which she qualified for the government-run health care system that has saved her life repeatedly: Medicare.

If we put my mother and the millions like her who live in every community in the nation out front in the health care debate, would Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck really be able to call reform advocates commies?  Would the health insurance industry have any credibility at all after callously attempting to kill my mother and thousands like her every year?  The answer to both questions is no.

It’s also way past time to personalize the discussion about the many ways in which working-class taxpayers are subsidizing gargantuan multi-national corporations like Walmart. We’re all familiar with the storyline: state and local governments roll out tax abatements and other incentives to attract the chain.  The Bentonville, Arkansas behemoth comes to town and builds a store that devastates the competition.  Shortly thereafter the store owners and employees who paid the taxes that funded the abatements are out on the street.  Meanwhile, many of the giant retailer’s employees are eligible for food stamps and qualify for Medicaid.  Walmart may save us money at the check-out, but we pay for it in taxes and lost jobs. Even though we all know the story, it is for some inexplicable reason, repeated year after year in community after community.  Why?  Perhaps because the government officials who work so hard to entice Walmart and the residents who breathlessly anticipate its arrival don’t know or have any connection to the people whose lives will be changed forever once the store opens its doors.

So let’s personalize the situation and talk about the new Walmart in Liberty Township, one small business owner who operates in its shadow, and the response of the union that represents his workers.

I’ve known Sandy Zander for a long time. He was my boss when I worked for the grocery chain he helped run. He was a fair-minded and able negotiator when we sat on opposite sides of the table during contract talks, and he’s been a successful small businessman since 1988 when he bought a few stores from the company that employed us until it went of business in the wake of a strike neither of us wanted but couldn’t avoid.  He’s genuinely a good guy.

Today, he and his family own two stores: a Giant Eagle in an upscale township east of Youngstown and Union Square Sparkle, one of the few full-service markets still operating in the distressed city.  Sandy’s stores are unionized, so his workers earn a decent wage and have health care and pension benefits.  For two decades he’s managed to survive despite the fact that he’s competing with non-union operators whose wage cost is much lower than his.

In Poland his main competitor is Henry Nemenz.  Henry’s been in the grocery business a long time.  He’s always been a non-union, low-wage, no benefits operator who profits by exploiting his employees.  His owns only a handful of stores, and the Zanders clean his clock every week.  When you drive by the two markets, which are located across the street from each other, you notice two things.  First, there are ten times more cars in the Giant Eagle lot and, second, the UFCW is conducting informational picketing at Nemenz.  The union is spending a lot of money to let people know that Henry’s non-union.  Good for them.

In Youngstown, Sandy’s main competitor is the new Walmart that Liberty Township officials begged for on bended knee.  When you drive by the two stores, which are located less than a half mile apart, you’ll notice two things: first, there are a lot of cars at Walmart and far fewer at Sandy’s than there used to be and, second, there is no UFCW picket line even though Walmart is every bit as bad an employer as Nemenz.

Picket line or no picket line, Sandy will continue to dominate the market in Poland.  But in Youngstown the prospects are not quite as bright.  If people continue to flock to Walmart, Sandy, his store, his workers, and the neighborhood he’s served for two decades could be in trouble.  His employees will lose their good jobs, their health care benefits, and their pensions.  Youngstown will lose the income taxes they pay, and 30 or 40 more city residents will be added to the unemployment rolls.  All because Liberty Township went out and bought themselves a Walmart.

Maybe, just maybe, if the UFCW decided to stand in front of the new store and make sure that people knew that every dollar they spent was putting a neighbor or friend in jeopardy they’d think twice about going in.  Maybe, just maybe, if the union decided to air some ads that highlighted the importance of good-paying retail jobs to the community customers would make different decisions about where they shop.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start fighting back — one township and one worker at a time.

Leo Jennings

Lessons from the Health Care Debate

Now that Senate Finance Committee Chair and Blue Dog Democrat Max Baucus has introduced his overdue and incredibly inadequate version of health care reform legislation, all eyes are on the Obama administration and House and Senate leaders as they stuff the provisions of five different bills and hundreds of amendments into the Congressional sausage-making machine and attempt to grind out a palatable reform package.

Away from the spotlight, however, strategists aligned with both political parties are already engaged in an exercise that is even more important than fixing the nation’s crippled health care delivery system.  Democrats are busily attempting to figure out what went wrong and how they can make sure they don’t screw up like this again, while Republicans want to figure out how to make sure that it happens again, and again, and again, until we end up back in power?

The answers have far deeper implications than the provisions of the health care bill that will eventually reach the president’s desk.  The side that finds the right answers will control the policy and electoral battlefield for years to come.

Among those offering answers are William Galston, Stan Greenberg, and Ruy Teixeira, the influential editors of the web-based journal The Democratic Strategist. In their most recent issue, they and writer James Vega assert that the Democrats’ difficulties were not caused by the administration’s flawed strategic and legislative decisions related to health care reform.  Instead, they place the blame on the Obama team’s failure to create and organize around a clearly defined core message within one month of taking office.

Their prescription for curing what ails the Party?  They suggest that the President clearly define himself and his agenda, that the Democrats establish a highly motivated corps of volunteers dedicated to spreading the word about the message, and that the Party develop local activities, including selling or distributing coffee mugs, tire gauges, and soap emblazoned with the words “Yes we can,” that will eventually involve into “enduring” institutions.

My reaction: wrong diagnosis, wrong cure.  And that’s dangerous because Galston, Greenberg, and Teixeira are so influential that some Democratic leaders may actually attempt to implement their misguided strategy instead of focusing on fixing what’s really gone wrong—and what most threatens the Democratic grasp on the reins of power.

Let’s start with their contention that the president’s failure to define his overall message, rather than his flawed health care strategy, is to blame for the current debacle.  This ignores the fact that the American people were extremely familiar with and supportive of Mr. Obama’s overall philosophy and agenda immediately before and after he took office.  They knew health care reform was his signature initiative, they overwhelmingly agreed that the system needed to be fixed, and in poll after poll, including one recently conducted by the Center for Working-Class Studies, they name him as the person they trusted most to get the job done.

It wasn’t necessary to lay out the big picture—everyone got it, including the suddenly cooperative health care stakeholders and dispirited conservatives: reform was inevitable.  Not even Rush Limbaugh, who assumed virtual leadership of the GOP after the 2008 election, or the incredibly bizarre Glenn Beck could stop it.

Then the President made a strategic blunder. He turned responsibility for crafting the final plan over to Congressional Democrats.  The minute he did so the public’s confidence in and support for reform began to erode, especially among critically important independent voters.

That created the opportunity for conservatives to gain control of the debate.  As five separate Congressional committees dithered for months, anti-reform activists began spreading lies about the various proposals.  Suddenly we heard about government-run death panels that would cavalierly kill grandma, dangerous cuts in Medicare, and Canadian-style socialized medicine that would leave Americans dying in the streets as they waited for heart operations and chemotherapy.

As the falsehoods gained traction in the media, reform advocates grew increasingly frustrated.  Not because no Democratic activists were prepared to enter the fray.  To the contrary, the nearly ten million members of Organizing for America were eager to become involved.  But without a concrete reform plan to counter the lies being spread by Limbaugh, Beck, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannitty, and Sarah Palin, they found it hard to fight.  You can’t beat something—even a compendium of BS—with nothing.

And that’s all the Democrats had until the president addressed a joint session of Congress on September 9.  Reclaiming ownership of the issue, he used his impressive rhetorical skills to inspire supporters, engender trust among skeptics, and shame the liars.  We won’t know for months whether he acted in time.  But at least reform, which had entered a permanent vegetative state during August, is now showing spasmodic signs of life.

No matter the outcome, Democrats must learn some important lessons from the current battle.  The first is that Barack Obama was elected to lead and despite his apparent compulsion to seek consensus, he must do exactly that when the stakes are high.  Damn the Republicans and the Blue Dogs.  Take charge. Get the job done.

A number of difficult issues remain on the table, including reshaping the American economy, re-regulating Wall Street, and restoring workers’ rights.  The outcome of those battles is entirely dependent on whether the president will use his personal political capital to fight for what’s right.  If he does, progressives will win.  If not, they will almost certainly lose.

The second lesson is not to re-invent the organizational wheel.  Democrats weren’t out-organized on health care.  They were out-communicated.  The millions of Organize for America activists who check their e-mail everyday hoping to be called to action would have totally overwhelmed the conservative wing-nuts if only they’d been given the message they needed to do so.

Finally, Democrats don’t need to waste time, effort, money, and energy building a new organization or printing up a bunch of doo-dads emblazoned with “Yes, we can.”  Organize for America has already demonstrated that.  And they’re out there waiting for the opportunity to show that they can do it again.

Leo Jennings

Obama’s DeLorean?

I know I’ve used the déjà vu/time machine analogy before,  but if Michael J. Fox can make three Back to the Future movies, then I can make a sequel, too.  Every time I read about how the Democrats first pandered to and are now ignoring the needs of the working class, I feel like I just landed back in 1993 after taking a wild ride in Doc Brown’s beat up DeLorean.

Back then, the Clinton administration lost control of the health care reform debate, abandoned its number one promise to labor, and screwed a whole bunch of Mahoning Valley residents who worked for Packard Electric. Clinton’s approval numbers tanked, and Republicans, once thought to be an endangered species, regained power.

Sound eerily familiar?  Today, the Obama administration has lost control of the health care reform debate, abandoned its number one promise to labor, and apparently screwed a whole bunch of Valley residents who used to work for Packard Electric.  The president’s once-phenomenal approval ratings are tanking, and Republicans, pronounced dead less than eight months ago, have risen Lazarus-like from their crypt.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on just to make sure we aren’t really caught in a time warp.  On health care, Mr. Obama is being beaten into the ground by the same right-wing liars who crushed reform in ‘93: Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, the insurance industry, and the AMA.

These guys, along with some new crazies, are recycling the lies they told 16 years ago.  They say we’re headed toward the kind of socialized medicine that (they claim) doesn’t work in Canada, that bureaucrats will interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, that care will be rationed, and that a government worker sitting in a cubicle will decide whether your elderly mother lives or dies.

The fact that none of this is true doesn’t seem to matter any more today than it did in the Clinton era.  Like then, the liars are using paid advertising and talk radio to propagate their fables.  And, like then, people are listening.

The President has responded by conducting town hall meetings where he spends most of his time refuting tall tales.  But that won’t get the job done.  It’s time for the president and the Democratic Party to spend some of the millions in their campaign accounts to mount a counterattack.

The TV and radio ads will be easy to make—just tell people the truth.  Tell them your plan won’t require them to abandon their coverage or their doctor, that bureaucrats working for the profit-hungry insurance industry are already making decisions about their health care, that care’s already rationed, especially if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who are under or uninsured, and  that we already have socialized medicine.  It’s called Medicare, and it’s kept untold millions of elderly mothers alive since 1965.

Tell the American people all that and do it right now, before members of Congress head home and are verbally assaulted by constituents who haven’t heard the truth.  If you don’t, the reps and senators will return to Washington scared sh—well, we all know how scared they’ll be—and health care reform will be dead.

Now let’s talk about unions.  In another Back to the Future moment, Mr. Obama, like Clinton in ’93, recently abandoned his promise to fight for the enactment of organized labor’s number one priority.  Sixteen years ago the issue was scabs.  During his campaign Clinton had promised to do everything possible to ban the use of permanent replacement workers during labor disputes.  He didn’t.

In 2008, labor’s priority was passage of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act (EFCA) a rewrite of the National Labor Relations Act that would, among other provisions, make card check recognition the law of the land.  This would prevent employers from engaging in the coercion and intimidation that have crippled countless organizing drives over the past two decades.  Obama repeatedly promised to do whatever was necessary to get it done:

We need to stand up to the business lobby that’s been getting their friends in Congress and in the White House to block card check. That’s why I was one of the leaders fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. That’s why I’m fighting for it in the Senate. And that’s why we’ll make it the law of the land when I’m President.

But they haven’t.  In yet another Democratic betrayal of the working class, the card check provision was stripped from the EFCA before it came to a vote in either house.  The president expended zero political capital on the issue.

Which brings us to Delphi-Packard.  At one time approximately 14,000 people worked in the company’s plants in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.  Then Clinton won the NAFTA battle and thousands of Valley residents saw their good-paying jobs head to Mexico.  Thousands of employees agreed to retire early in exchange for enhanced pensions and guaranteed health care benefits.

Guess what happened next.  First, Delphi-Packard went bankrupt.  Then salaried retirees lost their health care.  Then the company dumped its pension obligations on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.  As a result salaried employees will lose the enhanced benefits they were promised, as will thousands of retired hourly employees who had the misfortune of belonging to the IUE, including  most of the company’s workers in the Mahoning Valley.  They will also lose health care benefits.

Ironically, one group of hourly retirees will not face similar cuts: those from the UAW.  In a move designed to facilitate GM’s emergence from bankruptcy by gaining the union’s support for a concession package, Packard workers who were UAW members of  won’t lose a penny of their pensions or their health care benefits.  The IUE asked Mr. Obama’s auto task force to order GM to provide its members with the same supplemental pension and benefit package given to the UAW.  That request was summarily rejected.

It should come as little or no surprise then, that when retirees gathered to protest their fate, many carried signs castigating Obama and told reporters that they would do everything they could to deny him a second term.  Of course, these same workers had made a similar threat about Clinton in ’93.  Maybe Rahm Emanuel and the crew in the West Wing are confident history will repeat itself?  After all, they know that Democratic leaders keep getting away with disrespecting working families and their unions.  And maybe that’s why they were so willing to pit one union against another in order to protect GM?.

By the way, Mr. Obama’s approval numbers: 64% in February, 54% in July.  Was that whoosh I just heard the sound of the air rushing out of his presidency or the whirr of an old DeLorean flying by?

Leo Jennings

Deja Vu All Over Again

In mid-October of 1992 I was working as the Director of Communications and Public Policy for Local 880 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.  It was an exciting time.  A young, virtually unknown governor named Bill Clinton had used charisma, big ideas, and a sweeping vision of hope and change to capture the Democratic presidential nomination.  Now, with three weeks until the general election, he was poised to win the presidency and end the Reagan-Bush regime.

One evening following a meeting to discuss the get-out-the-vote plan that would enable Clinton to win Ohio and the presidency, a couple of union organizers and I were standing at the bar of the now-demolished Boatyard Restaurant on the north side of Youngstown.  Our mood was celebratory.  Great things were about to happen.  The world was about to change.

Suddenly, an extremely well dressed stranger made his way toward us through the crowd.  His look was intense.  He was pointing at my chest.  I was apprehensive.  He could have been the owner of a non-union grocery store, and many of them were fuming about the “Hold the Line” informational picketing program I had helped the UFCW develop.  He stopped inches from my face.

“I want that,” he said pointing at my Clinton-Gore button. “Can I have it?”

“You want this?  But you’re a Republican, aren’t you, I mean you look like one,” I said.

“Absolutely, lifelong.  But I have a Chamber of Commerce meeting tomorrow and I want to walk in wearing a Clinton button.  I’m a small businessman who is voting for Clinton because he’s going to fix the health care mess and that will save my company,” he said.  “And I want everyone at the Chamber meeting to know it.”

I gave him the button.  He beamed.  “This is an exciting time,” he said, shaking my hand. “We’re going to solve a real problem and make this a better country.  For the first time in my life I can’t wait to vote.”

I knew then that Bill Clinton would win the election based in large part on his promise to reform America’s deeply flawed health care delivery system.  A system bedeviled by exploding costs that threatened the viability of corporations like Chrysler and GM and that left 41 million people uninsured.

This encounter verified what the polls were saying: that health care reform was the third most important issue among likely voters and that, according to a survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, Clinton held a 55% to 27% lead on the issue, a margin that would grow to 42% by election day, even though his reform plan was a sparse outline at best.  People simply believed he would get the job done.

So did those of us in the labor movement.  The health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and yes, even Richard Nixon was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Clinton was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Now, flash forward to 2008.  Every Democratic candidate for the White House, including one named Clinton, vows to remedy the ills that afflict America’s health care system: exploding costs that will soon contribute to the  bankruptcy of  major corporations like Chrysler and GM and  a cadre of 51 million people who have no access to care.

It becomes the third most significant issue to voters, trailing closely behind concerns about the economy and the nation’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq.  The Party’s nominee, a young, charismatic, big thinking but virtually unknown senator from Illinois campaigns aggressively and effectively on the issue, although his reform plan is a sparse outline at best.

As in 1992, that minor shortcoming doesn’t seem to matter.  Voters simply believed he would get the job done.  So they made him president, and the health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Richard Nixon, and yes, Bill Clinton was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Obama was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Which brings us to where we stand today: once again on the precipice of disappointment.

That is because despite the President’s commitment to reform, including the development of the government-backed health care insurance option that is essential to holding down costs and providing universal access, we’ve already lost the first skirmish in the battle.  And that means we may not even have the war.

The skirmish broke out when the Congressional Budget Office released cost estimates for establishing the public plan and extending coverage to some, but not all Americans who don’t have it now.  The trillion dollar price tag choked pro-reform advocates in Congress and the White House and emboldened the coalition of opponents that has killed every attempt to regenerate our health care system over the last eight decades.

By week’s end Congressional Democrats were already in reverse, concerned, pundits said, that the president was “overreaching.” Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and the other intellectual Lilliputians who are the voice of the GOP were rejoicing, and the folks at the AMA, Pharma, and America’s Health Insurance Plans were smugly smiling—they’d seen this movie before and they really liked the ending.

Whether they will still be grinning a few months from now largely depends on whether those of us who supported Obama in 2008 are willing to jump into the fray in 2009 and help him write a new ending to the health care reform saga.  If we engage, educate, organize, and fight we may be able to win.  If we do not, well, sometime in the next 20 years, a story will be written about yet another charismatic candidate who won the presidency by promising to fix America’s broken health care system.

Leo Jennings