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Obama's Fight for Jobs Bill Could Save Presidency

By Steve Kornacki, Salon - October 6, 2011

The biggest secret that's not actually a secret in American politics is that President Obama realizes his $447 billion jobs bill will never be enacted - and that, as a result, the economy will not benefit from the increased growth and expanded payrolls that economists agree it would produce in advance of the 2012 election. But he’s pushing for it anyway, with unusual adamance and persistence, traveling the country to plead his case for an up/down vote in Congress and directly calling out GOP House leaders for refusing to give him one.

In the movie version, Obama’s push would rally the masses, force the GOP to deal in good faith, and spur the enactment of a Big Plan that jolts the economy to life and restores the public’s faith in Washington. The real-life reality, though, is that Republicans simply aren’t going to back away from their absolute opposition to new stimulus spending in any meaningful way. At most, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor indicated earlier this week, they may be willing to pass only a few of the most modest components of Obama’s plan. There’s just no reason for them to change course, not with Obama’s approval rating now barely over 40 percent — and not with the relationship between a president’s reelection prospects and the state of the economy so well-established.

This is why, as I wrote when he unveiled it a month ago, Obama’s jobs plan is really more of a reelection plan, one that stems from the White House’s realization after the debt ceiling fight that playing the Great Compromiser would not lead to actual compromises with Republicans and would not save Obama with swing voters in 2012 as long as the economy remained rotten. Since then, Obama has shifted his posture noticeably, with an eye toward sharply delineating the basic philosophical differences between him and his Republican opponents. The hope is to capitalize on the one good thing for Obama that came out of the debt ceiling saga — polls showing the image of the Republican Party slipping to its lowest level in the modern era — by convincing Americans that radical Republican obstructionism is keeping him from enacting ideas they like.

The jobs crusade is a big part of this. In theory, it should be simple: The individual components of the plan are all popular when pollsters ask about them (even among Republicans). But, of course, it’s not that easy — public opinion can be maddening to interpret, with voters frequently expressing contradictory views. Saying they support specific ideas in Obama’s jobs plan doesn’t necessarily mean they will support Barack Obama’s Jobs Plan. And even if they do say they support Obama’s plan, it doesn’t mean they’ll alter their overall judgment on his performance as president and his handling of the economy.

Thus do polls continue to show Obama in perilous territory: A new CBS survey has his job approval at 44 percent, while ABC pegs it at 42. When it comes to moving public opinion in a significant way, a miserable economy imposes profound constraints on a president. It’s tough to get around the public’s bottom-line desire to hold the White House occupant accountable for their anxiety.

But this doesn’t mean Obama’s strategy is foolish. It just means that if he’s going to break through to the public in this climate, it will be around the margins; there’s really nothing he can say or propose that will lift his job approval to 60 percent. But the 2012 election will probably be won or lost on the margins, with a swing of a point or two in either direction potentially making the difference. Obama right now is in real danger of being defeated for reelection, but he’s also capable of winning a second term. That’s the promise of the jobs push. Obama is making it clear that he’s going to make this his priority for the foreseeable future.

And there are some subtle signs that he might be reaching at least a few people. On the question of whom they trust more on job creation, voters now prefer Obama by a 49-34 percent spread, according to the new ABC poll. And a recent CBS poll found that 53 percent of voters believe that Obama simply doesn’t have the power to do anything about the economy. This is potentially significant when you compare it to 1992, the last time a president was defeated for reelection because of the economy. That fall, 59 percent of Americans said that George H.W. Bush could do something to fix the economy. Granted, a big part of the difference is probably the public recognition that the economy is in a much deeper hole right now. But it may also be that some voters have been persuaded that Republican obstructionism has tied Obama’s hands.

And there are other areas where Obama is seeking to draw clear contrasts with the GOP, most notably his renewed push for higher taxes on the wealthy — another concept that polls very well on its own, even among Republicans. There’s no illusion on the White House’s part that this will restore Obama’s standing to where it was in the early days of his presidency. But if it boosts him by just a few points — or if it leads 1 or 2 percent of the electorate to decide next year that the GOP is too risky an alternative to four more years of Obama — then it could easily save him from being a one-termer.

Steve Kornacki is Salon's news editor. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki  More Steve Kornacki

President Obama  (Credit: AP/Susan Walsh)

The most radical, community-organizing-inspired proposal to come out of the Obama administration is not the recent National Labor Relations Board moves aimed at strengthening organized labor nor his push to create more green jobs. No, it is his new proposal to limit the tax subsidy for very wealthy people to make so-called “charitable” contributions.

Though designed with the best of intentions, this subsidy now provides a financial incentive for nonprofits to rely primarily on a handful of huge donors, rather than encouraging them to build a broad, small-dollar fundraising base — one that would inherently grant the nonprofit world much-needed independence from the elite’s narrow self-interests. Moreover, this tax break often ends up subsidizing the super-rich’s efforts to finance their own partisan causes — causes which represent the opposite of soup kitchens, mentoring programs or anything else that falls under the rubric of actual charity.

To understand how this all operates, recall that President Obama is not — even remotely — proposing to halt government subsidization of nonprofits. He’s merely proposing to minimally reduce the amount the very affluent can write off their tax bill when they make donations to 501(c)3 organizations from the current (huge) 35 percent of the contribution down to (the still pretty huge) 28 percent.

As the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports, this one provision alone would generate a whopping $400 billion for the U.S. Treasury and would apply only to those making over $200,000 a year — that is, to the top 3 percent of income earners.

The fact that such a modest proposal, affecting so small a part of the population, would generate such enormous revenue reflects how philanthropy in America now tracks the larger contours of our Gilded Age economy. Because they now control such a disproportionate share of national wealth, America’s rich make the lion’s share of tax-deductible philanthropic contributions. A 2006 survey found that the 3 percent of Americans with assets above $1 million “are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all charitable giving” (all this despite the fact that, as ABC News, “people at the lower end of the income scale give almost 30 percent more of their income”).

While the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that Obama’s proposal would cut donations by only 1.3 percent, leaders of major nonprofits — encouraged by Republican Party apparatchiks — are now vehemently decrying the president’s initiative, implying that he’s waging a war on the most basic tenets of altruism and compassion.

The outsized hysterics, of course, betray something greater than a fear of a relatively small (and still theoretical) 1.3 percent drop — the reaction exposes a status quo inertia from a nonprofit establishment that has grown way too accustomed to a top-down corporate model of charity. It’s simply far easier and less labor intensive to get a few absurdly wealthy donors to cut huge checks, rather than doing the hard work of building social movements and mass public awareness campaigns that convince thousands of people to cut lots of little ones. That’s especially true in a stratified economy that has seen the number of $100-million donations hit record levels.

Predictably, the result of such a structure is that a large chunk of charity goes into exactly what Saul Alinsky despised — the paternalistic “settlement house” model of nonprofit work that tries to address social problems in specific ways that do not fundamentally challenge the economic inequality or corporate power structure that has so benefited big philanthropists. Two emblematic examples of this are the Gates and Walton Foundations, which indeed do some good work, but which also fund projects (particularly in education) that try to steer policymaking away from the kinds of questions about corporate power and poverty that might make Bill Gates and the Walton family uncomfortable.

But this is only half the story. Indeed, the other, even more insidious tax-code problem the President’s proposal begins to address is how the IRS so laxly grants 501(c)3 designations, and how those designations now conspire with the charitable tax deduction subsidy to further extend the power of the rich.

Under the current system, the wealthy can openly exploit a tax code that classifies genuine charity and profit-focused politics as one and the same. From Tea Party weapons such as the FreedomWorks Foundation to Democrats’ lockstep partisan attack machines like the Center for American Progress, many of America’s political and electioneering organizations are officially designated as charitable 501(c)3s, under the same tax code given to institutions like the Red Cross and Save the Children. The most dominant of these organizations are quite deliberately structured to rely on — and cater to — a relatively small handful of politically motivated, self-interested benefactors whose contributions are that much bigger because they can be taken as tax write-offs.

And so, the very space in American politics where true nonprofits should be building genuine mass social movements has become yet another playground for oligarchs — a playground where the cause of challenging oligarchy is deliberately avoided.

Limiting this subsidy for the rich, then, is a move toward modifying the tax code in a way that might better encourage nonprofit groups to try to broaden their fundraising base — a move that is absolutely critical right now. As the great mass social movements of American history suggest, only when a coalition of nonprofits has an independent, mass fundraising base can they focus and organize around the toughest questions of all.

The president’s willingness to initiate a conversation about how tax subsidies make such organizing that much harder may be a small step in the right direction — but it’s an important one.

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.  More David Sirota

President Obama  (Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)

I like that President Obama called himself an underdog Monday in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. If the GOP gets its act together in 2012 and doesn’t nominate a crazy Tea Party person, he could be in trouble. But they probably won’t. Maybe the president is realizing that the overdogs are determined to bring him down, so he better cast his lot with the majority of Americans, who are underdogs. If he fights for them, they’ll fight for him.

The very same day, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor gave the president a huge gift, arrogantly insisting the House GOP won’t even have a vote on Obama’s jobs bill; they plan to carve it up and serve it to the Tea Party, which will reject pretty much all of it. The full bill itself, Cantor told reporters, is dead.  One asked: “The $447 billion jobs package as a package: dead?” the reporter asked. “Yes,” Cantor replied. Let’s hope Obama keeps pushing for a vote on the entire $447 billion jobs package.

On MSNBC’s “Hardball” Monday, Chris Matthews staged what he called “The Great Democratic Debate,” between Democratic centrists and progressives, about which way Obama should go in 2012. Progressives clearly had the upper hand. Michael Moore trounced Mark Penn, with Penn suggesting that Obama lay off his “class warfare” — defined as pushing tax hikes for the uber-rich — because wealthy people are more likely to vote.

If ever I’ve seen a better illustration of how Democrats lost their moorings in the last few decades, it was Penn’s argument. First of all, a lot of poor and working-class voters dropped out of the system because neither party represented their interest. Penn’s strategy actually dovetails with what’s devastated the Democratic Party in my lifetime: running away from their proud legacy of putting government on the side of most Americans, and therefore losing the allegiance of many struggling voters who used to be Democrats.

What’s even sillier is that Penn was a top advisor to Sen. Hillary Clinton, and he pushed that sort of campaign on her in 2008. She lost badly to the young senator from Illinois, who was about bringing more people into the process. And we’re asking Mark Penn to give Obama advice because? "�In the next segment, Sen. Bernie Sanders squared off against former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. They didn’t disagree on very much, practically — Rendell’s basically an economic populist, and he and Sanders agreed that Obama needed to focus on jobs and the economy. But Rendell said one thing I disagree with strongly: That the president should pursue independents because he doesn’t need to worry about his base; the base will be with him, whatever he does. Some parts of his base will, and some parts won’t. The president would be wrong to take any segment of his 2008 base for granted, from African-Americans to union members to young people.

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