On May 12, President Obama participated in a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University. His remarks received attention when he blamed the Fox News Channel for propagating a narrative of America’s poor as “lazy” and “undeserving.”
Speaking to the crowd, Obama said attempts to vilify the poor had been successful:
“[T]here’s always been a strain in American politics where you’ve got the middle class, and the question has been, who are you mad at, if you’re struggling; if you’re working, but you don’t seem to be getting ahead. And over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there’s been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom. And I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leaches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction.”
He went on to point the finger at Fox News: “[I]t's still being propagated. I mean, I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu — they will find folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find them. They’re like, I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obama phone.”
But less attention has been paid to the first part of President Obama’s statement — the notion that “there’s been an effort to…make folks mad at folks at the top.”
Indeed, there has been a political effort to divide so-called “ordinary” Americans from those considered wealthy. It’s a tactic President Obama should be intimately familiar with, as he’s used it throughout his presidency.
[sharequote align="center"]Obama’s speeches and policy appeals are consistently marked by class rhetoric.[/sharequote]
Obama’s speeches and policy appeals are consistently marked by class rhetoric. He frequently paints the uber-wealthy as the “other” — a group far removed from the experiences of everyday Americans and composed of a plethora of capitalist bogeymen — billionaires, big corporations, hedge fund managers and the like.
Pitching a tax plan in 2011, President Obama stressed that he wanted to extend tax cuts “for ordinary Americans” but get rid of tax breaks for the super-rich.
“The tax cuts I’m proposing we get rid of,” he explained, “are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires; tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners.”
He habitually calls on the wealthy to “pay their fair share” — a remarkable call, when one looks at what they actually pay. The top 1 percent are estimated to have paid 45.7 percent of income taxes in 2014, and the top 20 percent almost 84 percent of federal income taxes. What is their fair share, if not that?
At the Georgetown event, Obama referred to the wealthy as “society’s lottery winners,” a dismissive label that carries with it the suggestion that financial success is merely the product of chance or luck. The term hearkens back to his infamous “You didn’t build that” comment, when Obama told a crowd in 2012 that successful Americans didn’t achieve success on their own.
“If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen,” he said.
He has repeated the claim that Warren Buffet’s secretary pays more in taxes than Buffet himself on countless occasions. Nearly all would agree that doesn’t sound right; fewer realize that it’s also not true. But never mind that the claim is false — there is political value in pitting the secretary against the CEO.
President Barack Obama addresses the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University in Washington, May 12, 2015. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
“I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he said on the 2012 campaign trail — one of many remarks seemingly aimed at distinguishing himself from Mitt Romney on the basis of wealth, not policy. When Romney asked Obama about his pension in a presidential debate, Obama retorted that his pension was not nearly as big as Romney’s — a fact entirely immaterial to the debate but one which had political legs. According to one report, reporters gathered backstage broke out into applause after Obama’s jab.
Since when is financial success something to jeer in America?
At the heart of Obama’s class-based rhetoric is his perception of what constitutes fairness. During the Georgetown poverty discussion, President Obama called for raising taxes on carried interest. Referring to wealthy hedge fund managers, Obama made his stance plain: “You pretty much have more than you’ll ever be able to use and your family will ever be able to use,” he said. “There’s a fairness issue involved here.”
That’s not the first time he’s elevated fairness above all else.
When Obama was running for president in 2008, debate moderator Charlie Gibson asked him why he wanted to raise the capital gains tax, seeing as past rate hikes actually reduced federal revenue, while rate cuts did the opposite. Why raise it, if it would lower revenue?
“[F]or purposes of fairness,” Obama replied. The consequences of the tax were immaterial.
In pursuit of this warped ideal, Obama ignores financial realities and stokes class envy by giving voters the impression that the rich pay very little, while the middle class shoulders the country’s tax burden. Unfortunately, the tactic seems to have worked: according to an Associated Press poll, 68 percent of Americans believe the wealthy don’t pay enough in federal taxes, while 60 percent believe the middle class pays too much.
In fact, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid 38.1 percent of federal income taxes in 2012, and the top 10 percent paid 70 percent of all income taxes. As for tax rates, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid an average effective income tax rate of 22.8 percent, while the bottom 50 percent paid an average rate of just 3.3 percent. Those earning between the 50th and 25th percentile paid an average 7.2 percent rate.
Yet two-thirds of Americans think the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share.
People are either unfamiliar with the facts or they’ve bought into Obama’s philosophy. Let’s hope it’s the former.
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