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Working In These Times

Friday, Jul 2, 2010, 11:10 am

Obama’s Visit to the Heartland: The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly (Part 1)

BY Roger Bybee

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a town-hall style meeting on June 30, 2010, in Racine, Wisc. Obama spoke about the economy to 1,300 attendees.   (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The contradictions of President Obama's relationship with labor were on full display when he visited Racine, Wis., on Wednesday, where the official unemployment rate stands at a disheartening 14.2 percent. The visit to my hometown was a combination of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

THE GOOD

To a packed house at Racine's historic Memorial Hall, Obama powerfully articulated the failure of Republican policies that produced the Great Recession, from which he is still struggling to dig out:

In Washington, nearly a decade of tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires led to little more than sluggish growth, a shrinking middle class, your paychecks flat-lined.  Wages and incomes did not go up.  Even when the economy was growing, it wasn’t growing for you.

With corporate abuses like the BP oil disaster and the Wall Street meltdown on everyone's mind, the president distilled the basic Republican philosophy in memorable terms:

They think we should keep doing what we did for most of the last decade leading up to the recession. So their prescription for every challenge is pretty much the same— and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here—basically cut taxes for the wealthy, cut rules for corporations, and cut working folks loose to fend for themselves. 

Basically their attitude is, you’re on your own.

Obama also effectively outlined critical differences with the Republicans on issues where they have shamelessly shown their allegiance to Corporate America and antagonism to workers, as on Wall Street reform (where GOP Senators filibustered until a tax on big banks was dropped), the extension of unemployment benefits, and his advocacy of "fair trade."

The glaring contrast between Obama and the Republicans was driven home by Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner's remark Tuesday that the Democratic bill to reform Wall Street practices was like "using a nuclear bomb to kill an ant. " Obama retorted:

Well, if the Republican leader is that out of touch with the struggles facing the American people, he should come here to Racine and ask people if they think the financial crisis was an ant. He should ask the men and women who’ve been out of work for months at a time.

Obama creates bond of trust with crowd

Obama's visit to a badly-wounded, de-industrializing factory town was  perceived by many working people as a sign of his deep sense of caring about their struggles for survival.  Jeff Urquhart, an unemployed construction worker, was heartened by Obama's concern of preventing home foreclosures and his insistence on "fair trade" instead of "free trade" deals promoting the flight of jobs flow overseas.

"I just know whatever decisions he makes it comes from the heart," Urquhart said, "and we haven't had that in a politician in some time."

Racine County AFL-CIO Co-President Jeff Van Koningsfeld judged  the response of working people people in the audience as "optimistic," saying "He's been fighting for working people. " Adding, "We wish he's be more vocal on some issues, " Van Koningingsveld stressed his faith in Obama's commitment to workers and ability to lead the nation. "We're very hopeful," he stated. "Obama is the only answer we see."

Obama's visit was accompanied by good news for United Steelworkers local 1343 at Bucyrus International in nearby South Milwaukee, who had come en masse to the event in the hope of persuading Obama to make a change in policy affecting hundreds of jobs. Their messages to the White House evidently succeeded, with the federal Export-Import Bank reversing its initial decision to turn down $600 million in loan guarantees for the building of a coal-fired power plant in India.

The project will now move forward with more stringent environmental protections. Building the plant will mean a major increase in orders for Bucyrus International, which builds mining equipment. Some 300 to 500 jobs will be added in South Milwaukee, and another 700 in other U.S. plants.

THE BAD

While running for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama was eloquent and unceasing in denouncing the devastating impact of corporate relocation of jobs to low-wage tyrannies, invariably described in the corporate media as "free trade." Because of his departures from the "free trade fundamentalism," he took an enormous pounding in the corporate media for being a "demagogue"—merely for fighting against the export of family-supporting US jobs.

Given the level of unemployment in Racine—much of it caused by the flight of U.S. employers to Mexico, China, and other low-wage sites—Obama felt obligated to take on the "trade" issue. He began by describing the problem in terms that resembled those he used on the campaign trail in 2008:

It is absolutely true that a lot of our manufacturing left to go to China and other low-wage countries -- and a lot of these were U.S. companies, by the way, but they took their operations over there and then they shipped the goods back.

But then President Obama tried a bait-and-switch manuever. He converted the question of job relocation into one of international competition, as if the central problem was international trade rules rather than the strategy of U.S.-based transnational corporations to seek the lowest wages and weakest regulations possible.

Obama stated his support for "free trade," but insisted that it be "fair"—a slippery formulation packed with contradictions. Obama then worked in a hollow pitch to pride in American workers' skill and productivity that free-trade Republicans often use:

And so we’ve got to make sure that the countries we’re trading with are being fair. I believe in free trade. I think we can compete with anybody in the world.

Obvious evasiveness

Of course, the fundamental issue is not competing with companies based in other nations (although there are some problems in trade rules and currency exchange rates which require change). Instead, workers' main concern is their own U.S.-based employer deciding that he can multiply his profits by setting up news plants exploiting low-wage labor under near-slavery conditions outside the United States.

Obama's evasiveness on this point did not escape State AFL-CIO President Newby, who has long been a progressive leader, especially on globalization issues:

I did not hear explicit and strong opposition to NAFTA and WTO -style trade agreements that send U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas. That is an issue of deep concern that we will continue to monitor and speak out about.

Given the current direction of the Obama administration on trade, this omission was immensely revealing.

More on this in Part II: The Very Ugly: How the auto bailout plan actually financed Chrysler's move of 850 jobs from Kenosha, Wis., to Mexico.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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