Publisher's Note — June 20, 2012, 12:53 pm

Obama Does Populist Pantomime, Empowers G.O.P.

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on June 20, 2012.

Scott Walker’s easy victory in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election once again raises the question I’ve been posing for nearly four years: What will it take for liberals to recognize Barack Obama’s lack of conviction about anything remotely resembling a reform agenda?

Nowadays it’s not just me and the political scientist Adolph Reed pointing out the president’s indifference to progressive or constitutional causes. His refusal to help Walker’s Democratic foe, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, has been widely noted by the media as well as by disgusted Democrats in America’s Dairyland.

And recently the pro-Obama, generally liberal New York Times has exhibited disenchantment over the president’s personal selection of assassination targets via drone strikes, and his vulnerability to lobbying by big business, specifically Big Pharma.

The list of collaborations between the president and the political-lobbyist establishment grows so long that columnists are running out of space in which to summarize them. True, he has escalated the war in Afghanistan and handed the insurance companies 30 million new government-subsidized policies (Obamacare really should be called Romney–Baucuscare), but his inaction on the great issues is so obvious it’s a wonder Mitt Romney doesn’t campaign against a “do-nothing” White House, as Harry Truman campaigned against a “do-nothing” Republican Congress in 1948.

Romney doesn’t want to do anything, either, except cut taxes for the rich, but such a slogan would nonetheless be accurate and effective. By now I know the liberals’ defense of Obama by heart: stimulus package, General Motors bailout, exit from Iraq, gay marriage, and Dodd–Frank. But three of these “initiatives” were programmed by President Bush before Obama took office. The fourth, gay marriage, is a symbolic gesture calculated to raise money (e.g., the May 14 fundraiser soliciting gay donors hosted by Ricky Martin in New York), since marriage law is a matter for the states. The fifth, Dodd–Frank, has reformed nothing important in the financial-derivatives racket.

As for the others, the stimulus package was too weak, the GM rescue was unaccompanied by urgently needed trade reform and tariffs, and the withdrawal from Iraq left thousands of U.S.-contracted mercenaries in place while shifting combat brigades to adjacent Kuwait, where there are now 15,000 American troops.

Obama’s do-nothingness has reached new heights with the introduction by House Democrats early this month of a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour. The proposed law is called the Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012, because a $10 minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, would still only be worth roughly what it was in 1968, when the minimum wage was $1.60.

For some members of the president’s party, this bill is a no-brainer, since raising the minimum wage would not only help the beleaguered 4.4 million workers who try to live on it (as well as the roughly 16 million who make less than $10 an hour, but more than the minimum wage), but would also stimulate the economy by encouraging large numbers of people to spend more money. At the same time, it would create a modest redistribution of income in a society grotesquely distorted by a widening income gap, with plutocrats getting richer at the expense of ordinary families.

Since Obama hasn’t had the courage or the will to fight the GOP for a higher top marginal income-tax rate, this is a practical way to help redress income inequality. It is practical, despite a Republican majority in the House, because upping the minimum wage is a winning issue for both parties: In 2007, when Bush, the “right-winger,” was still promoting stupidity in foreign policy, he wasn’t so stupid as to oppose the last increase in the minimum wage, a three-stage rise from $5.15 to the current $7.25.

With it, the White House got emergency funding for Iraq and some tax cuts, and there was no problem pushing it through Congress. The bill passed the then Democrat-controlled House 315–116, with the support of 82 Republicans, and almost unanimously in the Senate, 94–3.

Today, with Congress split between Republican and Democratic majorities, Obama could use similar tactics, offering something the Republicans want in order to help desperate working people everywhere. The Tea Party couldn’t call it a tax increase, and the most dedicated conservatives in Congress might admit to themselves that even a Tea Party fanatic can’t live on leaves alone.

Wouldn’t this be popular for everybody, the perfect sort of warm and fuzzy bipartisan measure that Obama supposedly dreams about? Wouldn’t Obama, the former community organizer, the friend of the poor, leap to embrace the Catching up to 1968 Act? So far, however, it looks as if Obama wants to drown this kitten.

Last week I had a Harper’s Magazine intern call the White House for comment on the minimum-wage bill, and the initial response from the press office suggested it hadn’t heard of the bill: Eight days after it was introduced, following four more calls, someone identifying himself as an intern responded by saying, “We’re working on a response” and refusing to give his name.

Obama’s principal objective these days is not to offend the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or his Wall Street campaign contributors. He doesn’t want the Democratic Party to be a popular party; he much prefers doing a populist pantomime and blaming the Republicans for intransigence. The last thing he wants is a revived Democratic base that might start demanding action on other fronts, such as regulating banks by restoring the Glass–Steagall Act, something Obama has steadfastly opposed.

Obama didn’t intervene in Wisconsin because Scott Walker is what the late essayist Walter Karp called the “indispensable enemy” to whom all evil can be ascribed. The president won’t fight for a higher minimum wage for much the same reason.

In Massachusetts, we see a similar pattern: Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who is pro-Glass–Steagall, has been unable to secure the support of the Boston Democratic organization led by Mayor Thomas Menino in her neck-and-neck battle with Republican Scott Brown.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama can’t seem to make time for a campaign appearance with Ms. Warren.

Sound familiar?

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