The Black Commentator: An independent weekly internet magazine dedicated to the movement for economic justice, social justice and peace - Providing commentary, analysis and investigations on issues affecting African Americans and the African world.
Dec 9, 2010 - Issue 405

I Have to Say Something about Obama,
the Tax Cuts,
and the Federal Pay Freeze
The African World
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
B Editorial Board



I am sorry, folks. I just have to get my two cents in on President Obama’s proposal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and freeze the pay of federal workers. I will make this brief.

During the campaign, one of the things that I and a number of other commentators warned about was the sense that we had from then Senator Obama that struggle was not a watch-word. In fact, the then Senator seemed to avoid that as best he could. He wanted us to embrace Martin Luther King’s vision of the need for a non-racial and just United States without acknowledging the extent to which the struggle continued.

Since his election we have seen a combination of some bold ideas and rhetoric matched with a consistent pattern of premature compromising. There have been psychological explanations offered for this but I think that they mainly miss the point. There is, however, a psychological aspect that we must acknowledge.

First, President Obama, as we warned, saw himself primarily reforming the image of the USA rather than the substance. The masses that supported him, however, were looking for substantive change. They were far from united on the character of that change, but they were looking for a champion to advance that. Whether Obama intended on making substantive change is beside the point. What he clearly decided, evident immediately after the election and during the transition period, was to seek to stabilize neo-liberal capitalism and focus on assuring the markets and investors that he was reliable. His appointments have almost all been in that direction.

Second, President Obama has been deeply concerned about being perceived as an “angry black man.” I hope that this is not too psychological because I believe that it is central to understanding his tactical approach. Since the campaign, his response to racist attacks has been to have a cool demeanor that does not shatter. Emotion from a black person is often perceived by whites as threatening and since President Obama wanted to assure whites as to his stability, he could not afford to show emotion. Thus, the anger that millions are feeling, regarding the collapse of their lives, is not something that he can channel because to do so would be to raise the spectre of the Mau Mau, literally and figuratively in light of his Kenyan least that seems to be his fear.

Third, the masses can be dangerous, particularly for those in the Democratic Party who were uneasy with the Obama phenomenon in the first place and who have their hands in the till of Wall Street. The forces that were galvanized by Obama had (and I would argue continue to HAVE) the potential of catalyzing a social movement(s) that, among other things, tackled the gross economic injustice in this country, and quite possibly taking on climate injustice and elements of US foreign policy. In that sense, the decision by Obama to close down his campaign and morph it into a one-way communication mechanism rather than a permanent organization was not an accident nor was it bad tactics. The existence of such a formation was threatening to the powers that be in the Democratic Party and, indeed, threatening to those in the White House who actually did not wish to be pushed.

As a result, we have been watching a series of bad decisions matched with worse tactics. The federal worker pay freeze is among the latest examples and it actually should not have surprised anyone. The administration most likely believed that they could carry out a preemptive strike by taking the wind out of the sails of the Republican deficit hawks. After all, President Clinton did much the same. The problem is that Obama’s actions have struck at one side of the heart of his core constituency and this is very problematic. The federal pay freeze, along with the compromise on the tax cuts, then, seem to be tactics in the absence of any sort of strategy; after all, the pay freeze was allegedly addressing the deficit, but the extension of the tax cuts worsens the deficit.

A number of people, in the midst of justified outrage, have suggested that there needs to be a candidate or candidates to run in the Democratic primaries against President Obama as a way of challenging him. While I understand this view, I think that it does not work as good, progressive political strategy. Progressives are in a position of weakness. It is unlikely that a good, multi-racial, progressive challenge - that has credibility - can be mounted against Obama. I might be wrong. But what is the case is that progressives can mount Congressional challenges and, in that sense, mirror some of what the Tea Party has done on the political Right. I am talking about going after both the Republicans but also the right-wing of the Democratic Party. To do this, as my mentor Jack Odell reminded many of us recently, necessitates a third force, or independent organization(s) that advances a progressive agenda. People such as Danny Glover, Ron Daniels, Barbara Ransby and I have called for such formations for a while.

Ok, so now many of us have analyzed the world; the time has come to change it. Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.