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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Aug 17, 2010, 11:51 am

Obama Stands Firm on Muslim Center, but Neglects Joblessness

BY Roger Bybee

President Obama's forthright defense of the Islamic community's religious rights, triggered by the controversial center in lower Manhattan, was like the sudden reappearance of a long-lost friend.

After enduring 20 months of Obama's cautious, corporate friendly economic policies and a repeat of many of Bush's worst abuses on civil liberties, it had become difficult to recall that he is capable of holding his ground and delivering a punch.

But on Friday night, Obama reminded us the guy can really fight when he chooses to get out of his protective crouch and go on the offensive.

Indeed, Obama is willing to make his case when 70% of the American people – stoked by a one-sided torrent of religious bigotry – oppose the right of Muslims to locate a community center approximately four blocks from Ground Zero.

So why can't he make a powerful appeal for the kind of bold economic medicine for which the American people are so desperately craving?

A fighting stance on the economy, along with steps I outlined last week , would include a battle with corporate America over outsourcing US jobs and a renewed fight for stimulus spending to rebuild our infrastructure (a subject I will take up in a future post). 

DISILLUSIONMENT ON THE LEFT

Up until now, the timidity of Obama administration has paradoxically managed to disillusion and disorganize his voting base which continues to be devastated by massive job losses, slashed pay, and plummeting home values. And at the same time his relatively cautious and corporate friendly reforms have inflamed and mobilized the Right and some elements of corporate America. 

Obama is unlikely win back the affection and trust of his Democratic base if he confines himself to the kind of rose-tinted approach on display in Milwaukee today, where he tried to color small-scale economic improvements as major developments. 

Thus, he bypassed the chance to meet with inner-city jobless workers, as "The job gap in inner city Milwaukee is 25 to 1," far higher than the already-staggering  overall national rate of 5 to 1. He could have surveyed the toll of corporate greed reflected in the once-productive but now ghostly empty factories that represent the loss of 80% of Milwaukee's manufacturing base since 1977.

Instead, President Obama visited a small suburban firm called ZBB. ZBB makes zinc bromide batteries. This firm, according to Obama, demonstrates the economic direction he is laying out for America. But while ZBB plans to add 80 jobs in the near future, Milwaukee is still reeling from the loss of 6,500 high-paying jobs at Rockwell Automation.

We expect our commitment to clean energy to lead to more than 800,000 jobs by 2012. And that’s not just creating work in the short term, that’s going to help lay the foundation for lasting economic growth. 

I just want everybody to understand – just a few years ago, American businesses could only make 2 percent of the world’s advanced batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles -- 2 percent. In just a few years, we’ll have up to 40 percent of the world’s capacity.

Here at ZBB, you’re building batteries to store electricity from solar cells and wind turbines. And you’ve been able to export batteries around the globe, and that’s helping lead this new industry. For years, we’ve heard about manufacturing jobs disappearing overseas. Well, companies like this are showing us how manufacturing can come back right here in the United States of America, right back here to Wisconsin

It's essentially the right long-term vision, but families don't eat or pay their mortgages in the long term. They need jobs and income. Right now.

START WITH TRADE

Yes, manufacturing could come back to America, Mr. President. Polls show that 78% of Americans want an end to the outsourcing of US jobs, so moving in this direction would be immensely popular with voters if not big donors.

But it would require dropping the White House's plans for new NAFTA-style trade agreements. It would mean directly challenging the CEOs of America about their ever-accelerating off-shoring of so many of America's best jobs. Stopping the exodus of US jobs to low-wage sites would entail a messy fight at a time when some of America's most ruthless CEOs are intent on shaking down the rest of the population for every last nickel despite their soaring profits.

Thus, we have CEOs like David Farr  of Emerson Electric, who declared, “I’m not going to hire anybody in the United States. I’m moving. They [the Obama administration] are doing everything possible to destroy jobs.” In reality, Emerson's Farr is merely following the trail carved out by previous Emerson CEOs who proudly boasted in the 1980's about the number of jobs relocated to low-wage plants outside the US – during the Reagan and Bush I years.

I wonder if Farr would be quite so obnoxious if he were forced to worry about cutbacks in government contracts or if he received less favorable tax treatment for the massive profits coming from brutal exploitation outside the US.

THE LONG RECESSION

Still, President Obama would be reluctant to take on corporate America as FDR did in 1930's. A major showdown runs counter to Obama's accommodating nature, and, more importantly, corporate America has far more ability to shift capital around the world electronically. with a simple keystroke. 

But Obama's other choice is far worse: to keep presiding over a slow-motion "recovery"  that will go unnoticed among the continuing cuts in good jobs and the substitution of low-paying and part-time work, the accelerating foreclosures, rising hunger, endlessly-deferred retirements, and anxiety-wracked childhoods.

Unless bold steps are undertaken – to pressure corporations for job creation in the US and to push for an economic stimulus plan to rebuild our under-maintained infrastructure – the Great Recession will drag on endlessly.

And while profits are rising for firms like Wal-Mart, the surge is likely due to increased spending by foreign consumers as cash-short Americans don't have money to spend. This reflects corporate America's growing dependence on both consumers and workers overseas as they shut down US plants and reduce domestic spending power:

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported a 3.6 percent increase in second-quarter net income and raised its earnings guidance for the full year as it benefits from cost-cutting and robust global growth in China, Brazil and Mexico.

But a closely watched measure of revenue fell more than expected, dragged down by its U.S. Walmart division, as its main customers have felt the biggest impact of the economy's woes... Revenue rose almost 3 percent to $103.7 billion.

As conservative economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Economy.com warned months ago, "Consumers just don't have the firepower to go out and spend more. Unless businesses curtail their job cuts, the recovery could very well peter out."

Mr. President, the job cuts will keep coming and the recession will drag on until you get into the middle of the ring and begin duking it out with the overseers of domestic job destruction and outsourcing. 

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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