Obama’s Rightward Drift in Pursuit of ‘Business Confidence’

Roger Bybee

President Barack Obama encourages Congress to raise the debt ceiling at a June 26 White House press conference.

Many liberals saw President Obama’s June 29 press conference as strongly pressuring Republicans to raise the debt ceiling without chain-sawing through the vital functions of government.

Some observers thought Obama forcefully cornered the Republicans at their most vulnerable in his remarks. President Obama put a question to congressional Republicans that should be asked over and over and over until they blink,” columnist EJ Dionne wrote Are they really willing to risk the nation’s credit and economic turmoil in order to preserve tax breaks for corporate jets, outlandishly low tax rates for hedge fund managers and loopholes for the oil companies?

Yes, Obama succeeded at exposing the Republicans at their most absurd. But first, you have to wonder why President Obama is negotiating with the Republicans at all. Why not have the Republicans talk directly to their most valued constituencies — the CEOs, Wall Street bankers and hedge fund traders, and the investor class? Do you think for one second that these forces would allow Republicans to interrupt their current streak of good fortune — astronomical profits, a 23 percent increase in CEO pay, a huge array of tax loopholes to exploit — by precipitating needless financial turmoil?

To the extent that Obama does not force Corporate America to step in and slap the Republicans into shape, he risks trading away vital safety-net programs.

For those concerned about the condition of workers, Obama at moments reflected his distance from both the plight and the perceptions of working families, especially the nearly 6 percent who are jobless or under-employed. 

Obama has entirely dropped the populist, anti-globalization voice that carried him to victory in 2008. Instead, on June 29 he often sounded as if he had transformed himself into a moderate Republican who was petrified at the thought of being too identified with the cause of working people:

Right now, Congress can advance a set of trade agreements that would allow American businesses to sell more of their goods and services to countries in Asia and South America — agreements that would support tens of thousands of American jobs while helping those adversely affected by trade. That’s pending before Congress right now….

I think these trade deals [with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama] will be important – because right now South Korea, frankly, has a better deal when it comes to our trading relationship than we do. 

Labor leaders like AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and Machinists political director Matt McKinnon have thoroughly dissected the South Korea agreement, showing how it is a NAFTA-style agreement that will result in funneling products made under near-slavery conditions in North Korea and China into the US. The Economic Policy Institute has estimated that it will result in the loss of 159,000 more U.S. jobs.


Worse, in discussing the National Labor Relation Board’s decision to impose penalties on Boeing for relocating jobs from Washington State to South Carolina in order to punish the Machinists union, the president felt obligated to defend the right of corporations to relocate jobs:

…as a general proposition, companies need to have the freedom to relocate. They have to follow the law, but that’s part of our system. 

True, Obama cheered the fact that Boeing intended to keep the jobs in the United States — even though it would means denying workers union representation and skill-appropriate wages in South Carolina. Further, his rationale — that corporations are entitled to near-total freedom to relocate– easily extends to sending jobs to Mexico, China, and South Korea. 

Obama’s thinking on this is far out of touch with the anxiety felt by 86 percent of Amercans polled in fall 2010, who expressed the belief that much of America’s economic troubles could be traced to the offshoring of jobs. 


Even with U.S. corporations sitting on record savings of $2 trillion while generating massive profits each quarter, Obama repeated the corporate talking point that America’s budget deficit somehow impairs business confidence” and deters job creation. How could business possibly feel any more confident, or more accuratelyly, arrogant?

Well, President Obama still plans somehow to make things even better:

What we need to do is to restore business confidence and the confidence of the American people that we’re on track – that we’re not going to get there right away, that this is a tough slog, but that we still are moving forward. 

Despite occasional forays into progressive terrain like proposing an infrastructure-building program, Obama’s news conference was more memorable for his adoption of the conservative framework on explaining sluggish job growth: We need less regulation, more free trade agreements, stronger business confidence in the government’s ability to reduce deficits. 

As President Obama drifts rightward in accepting the Right’s framing of the economy, he may gain the confidence of a some business leaders who doubt the capacity of the current Republican field (e.g, Michele Bachmann?) to manage the country’s economy. 

But as for the confidence and enthusiasm of all the disaffected and alienated voters — who are still left out of the glorious recovery that has been reserved for Corporate America — and whom Obama succeeded in mobilizing in 2008, the president’s current concerns and rhetoric hardly seem inspiring as the 2012 elections loom larger.

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 zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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