The virtues of a president with humble origins

Barack Obama was not born into wealth and privilege, and his policies reflect that

(KAL/Baltimore Sun )
October 30, 2012|Thomas F. Schaller

Since World War II, Americans have tended to elect middle class presidents. With the exception of the two Bushes — the first of whom lost his second election, the second of whom "lost" his first — both parties succeeded by nominating candidates from modest backgrounds: Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were hardly products of affluence, nor were Democrats Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.

Mitt Romney was born to both political and economic privilege. That's no crime, and Americans from privileged families often make fine leaders. Both Roosevelts are regarded among our greatest presidents; various Rockefellers — governors Nelson of New York and Lawrence of Arkansas, current Senator Jay of West Virginia — have ably served their states.

But we have reached a moment when the concentration of privilege has begun to undermine the cherished American notion of fair play, opportunity and generational progress for all. Via legacy and preferential admissions for children of major donors, our prep schools and universities favor the already favored. The shifting of our tax burden from wealth to work — income, capital gains, corporate, and inheritance tax rates are lower today than 40 years ago, while payroll tax rates are higher — is stratifying America into hardened classes of haves and have-nots.

Alone, Mr. Obama's humble origins are insufficient reason to re-elect him. He's also made ample mistakes as president, and he has disappointed liberals like me on issues ranging from drone missile use to extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Still, the president deserves re-election for two, related reasons. First, because Mr. Obama had to spend almost his entire first term fixing serious and largely inherited problems both at home (negative GDP growth rates and job losses unlike anything seen in four generations) and abroad (declining global respect and two ongoing, costly wars). And second, by consequence, he has earned the chance to see his efforts bear fruit during a second term.

Let's review the president's big decisions over the past four years.

As Michael Grunwald argues in The New New Deal, the Obama stimulus package succeeded even though it was about two-thirds the size needed, and a third of it was spent on lowly-stimulative tax cuts. That is, Mr. Obama got less than half — two-thirds of two-thirds is four-ninths — of the stimulus required to create sustained growth, and yet it still worked. For austerity champions with conveniently short memories, remember that in early 2008 President George W. Bush passed an almost equally-sized, $700 billion stimulus that produced little if any economic benefits.

As for rising debt, facts here are stubborn: Since he took office, for every dollar Mr. Obama's policies have added to the ledger, roughly $2.50 has been added from continuing Bush-era policies. Have conservative politicians and pundits blamed Mr. Bush at least twice as much during the past four years as they have Mr. Obama? No way. The only form of redistribution they favor is blame-shifting problems created by the previous president to the current one — and then calling Mr. Obama the complainer-in-chief.

Meanwhile, Obamacare is already bending the cost curve for government insurance. If it weren't, why does GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who proclaims the law a failure and vows its repeal, include the $714 billion in Medicare savings in his 10-year budget plan? Sorry, Mr. Ryan: You can't call something a failure and take fiscal credit for it.

The president also appointed the first back-to-back female Supreme Court justices, ended an Iraq war the next 10 administrations will continue to pay for with disability and health care benefits to our veterans, and killed Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden. Since taking office, the stock market has doubled.

A great record? Nope.

But given the severity of the situation, exacerbated by total Republican obstruction from Day 1, Mr. Obama deserves another four years. The president's humble beginnings will allow him to continue working on behalf of working-class Americans who for 40 years now have been squeezed tighter and tighter as the privileged elite who run the country use their power to cement their status, with little regard for the damage caused to our once-vibrant democracy.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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