Obama on the Backs of the Poor

Exclusive: The painful resolution of the debt-ceiling crisis shows that Republicans and the Right know how to play hardball and that the Democrats and President Barack Obama know how to get rolled. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern is thinking about other options.

By Ray McGovern

What are we to make of the Obama-brokered deal on debt and spending? It was certainly what the Germans call eine schwere Geburt (a difficult birth); it was one of the few times I would have favored abortion.

I am reminded of a sermon that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave during the turbulent 1950s, in which he peered into the future and issued a prescient warning:

“A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”

In promoting and then signing the so-called “deficit reduction” legislation, President Barack Obama has definitively confirmed that he stands in the ranks of those spiritual-death-dealing, “soft-minded” men about whom Dr. King warned so ominously.

In my view, even dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporters will now have to let the scales fall from their eyes. The new one-sided “compromise” so clearly promotes the interests of the wealthy over those of the poor that, in Biblical terms, it can readily be seen as a Goddamned deal.

I want to share some thoughts with those among us, believers and non-believers alike, who shudder at the prospect of our children and children’s children inheriting a country far different from the one promised by the American Dream, a nation approaching “’spiritual death.”

If you are not greatly concerned with the growing disparity between the rich and poor in this country, take another minute to ponder another warning from Dr. King in the same sermon:

“Passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”

It is a bitter pill and a great disappointment that the President has turned his back on those about whom the Hebrew and Christian scriptures express the deepest concern, the anawim. This frequently used Biblical word denotes not just those on the margins, but the despised, hated, poor, often said in Scripture to include the widows, the orphans, the strangers.

My atheist friends regularly remind me to widen my perspective. The scriptural mandate to care for the widows, the orphans and the strangers springs from the highest of human instincts, and neither requires nor presupposes a faith perspective.

In modern American history, it also has been shown that having a vibrant middle class is good for business, while a society of a few rich and many poor is prone to destructive boom-and-bust cycles.

A huge majority of economists concede that America has been sliding into a land of haves and have-nots for the past several decades and that the “deal” Obama signed into law on Tuesday will do little, if anything, to improve the lives of our fellow citizens deprived of work, shelter, medical care and other necessities.

In sum, Obama again put in a corner by Republicans who appeared ready to force the United States into default if they didn’t get their way reneged on a promise not to let the burden for coping with the economic/fiscal mess fall primarily on the backs of the poor.

The immediate deficit-cutting plan excludes any additional tax revenues from the rich, a line in the sand drawn by Republicans who were determined to protect even an extravagant tax loophole for corporate jet owners and special tax breaks for oil companies recording record profits.

And Republican leaders have made clear that they will be equally adamant against any new tax revenue from the recommendations of a special congressional committee, meaning that the United States will soon face another budget crisis in which the Republicans will demand even deeper spending cuts.

Demons and Scripture

Scripture contains a lot of stories about demons. These texts were always a stretch for me, until I found myself investigating my country’s use of kidnapping, torture and black-site prisons, not to mention targeted assassinations. No longer could I make light of the demonic.

Lessons from the various indignities visited on many of my friends in inner-city Washington have served as confirmation. Ex-offenders are especially prominent among the anawim of our nation’s capital.

If we are to follow Dr. King’s mandate to avoid participation in unjust systems and practices inevitably exacerbated by the legislation signed by the President on Tuesday, we need to decide how to react. Ideally, we will choose to move forward in a wide, justice-and-peace oriented community.

From what is known of Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor in Chicago, and the United Church of Christ’s reputation for faithfulness to Hebrew as well as Christian scripture, it is a safe bet that the social gospel was preached again and again in the hearing of an attentive Obama.

There is no way he could have escaped the insight that the ancient Hebrew concept of social justice was something that many in the U.S. power elite today would decry as an un-American activity.

This Hebrew concept of justice, which Jesus strongly embraced, challenges modern America and its economic inequality at almost every turn.

Take, for example, the Biblical concept of the Jubilee Year, which mandated widespread redistribution of wealth every 50 years. (See what I mean about “un-American?”)

I think we can assume that, if Obama were paying attention, he would have assimilated the starkly countercultural Hebrew concept of the Jubilee Year, an inspiration that rejected the idea of accumulated wealth and the outsized power that goes with it.

The Bible was dead serious about the redistribution of wealth. The Jewish sense was that, over time, the community would inevitably see immoderate wealth and immoderate poverty co-existing.

In other words, it was a given, for a whole bunch of very human reasons, that there would be mal-distribution of wealth, and the concept of Jubilee was to squash it all back down, essentially requiring everyone to return to the same starting point every 50 years as a matter of law.

Granted, it was a primitive idea for a simple economy, but the Jubilee spirit was the spirit of the God of the Hebrews who insisted time and again through the Biblical writers and prophets “there shall be no poor among you.” And for that to happen, there had to be periodic sharing of wealth.

It would be perhaps too much to expect that President Obama would have broached something along these lines to House Speaker John Boehner.

Still, would it have been too much a stretch to expect some mutual concern from Republicans and Democrats alike over the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country?

Boehner is fond of advertising that he is a Catholic. Me too.

The House speaker is a little younger than I am, but I would be surprised if he had not learned that the first thing Jesus of Nazareth said in his inaugural speech was that he had come to “bring good news to the poor.” There was only bad news for the poor from the debt-limit “compromise.”

Chastened by the Right

In Obama’s public appearances, there have been a few times when he showed some sensitivity to the problem of an extreme accumulation of wealth at the top.

Remember campaigner Obama’s brief chat with Joe (the Plumber) Wurzelbacher in Toledo, Ohio, on Oct. 12, 2008.

“My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody,” Obama said. “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

The Republicans and the right-wing news media pounced on the comment, accusing Obama of running for “redistributionist in chief.”

Fox News played up the following snide statement from a spokesman for John McCain: “If Barack Obama’s goal as President is to ‘spread the wealth around,’ perhaps his unconditional meetings with Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro, and Kim Jong-Il aren’t so crazy, if nothing else, they can advise an Obama administration on economic policy.”

A chastened Obama quickly learned his lesson. Since the “Joe the Plumber” incident, Obama has avoided any clear suggestion that he sees a benefit in a more equitable sharing of wealth.

On Feb. 7, 2011, the President volunteered to undergo a TV grilling by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly prior to the Super Bowl and was prepared for O’Reilly’s when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife-type question on the topic:

“Do you deny that you’re a man who wants to redistribute wealth?” asked O’Reilly.

“Absolutely.  Absolutely,” Obama responded.

O’Reilly himself is an interesting case study. A graduate of Catholic grammar and high schools on Long Island, he in 1971 earned a B.A. in history from Marist College, which was founded by the Catholic order of Marist Brothers in Poughkeepsie, New York. He then taught briefly in a Catholic high school.

There is no indication that anywhere along the line anyone told him of the Jubilee Year concept, or even that Jesus of Nazareth said he would be, and his followers should be, “good news for the poor. “

Fox has been very good news for O’Reilly; Wikipedia records his annual salary at $20,000,000.

Given how Obama facilitated “resolving” the manufactured crisis over raising the debt ceiling and other fiscal measures, he seems determined to prove his declaration to O’Reilly.

Backs of the Poor

At a Town Hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California, on April 20, the President inadvertently (and ironically) gave a hint regarding how easy it would be to do what he actually ended up doing even while criticizing Republican attitude of neglect of the poor.

Here’s what Obama said to applause from the well-heeled folks at Facebook: “Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, for people who are powerless and don’t have lobbyists or don’t have clout.”

Then, to avoid an unprecedented default on the payment of U.S. debts, Obama ultimately opted for this “easier” course of action, exempting the wealthy and corporations from pitching in to solve the debt problem and bowing to Republican demands that everything come from spending cuts.

The outcome of the debt-ceiling battle has left many disillusioned Democrats and progressives now certain that it’s foolhardy to expect Obama to behave any differently, even though he continues to promise a vigorous debate on the proper role of government in American society but then never delivers.

That means the next course of action for Americans who want a different outcome may be to knock on the doors of rectories, synagogues and mosques to see if there’s anyone home and if anyone cares about what is happening to those on the margins.

Ask if these religious leaders are aware of what happened in Germany during the Thirties, when Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could not find their voice, and ended up acting as a force of stability for a fascist regime. See if it’s possible to wake anyone up in the religious institutions tied to the Establishment.

Inform other citizens that 58 cents of every dollar in federal “discretionary spending” now go to the Pentagon. It might be worth noting that the Soviet Union America’s “great enemy” imploded 20 years ago. Despite the lack of a threat from a major power, the U.S. military spending equals that of all the other countries of the world put together.

It’s also worth recalling President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about “the military-industrial complex” and the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur ten years earlier. (Neither of these military men was exactly a “dove.”)

On May 15, 1951, MacArthur said: “It is part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear.”

Since the Obama administration and Congress cannot be counted on to pursue traditional American justice (not to mention Biblical Jubilee justice) toward the poor and since American religious institutions mostly are riding shotgun for this inequitable system we might do well to heed the admonitions of popular theologian Annie Dillard; Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers; and Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 60s:

Dillard:  “There is only us; there never has been any other.”

Chavez:  “There are already enough of us.  But without action, nothing is going to happen.”

Savio: “ There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

Some Americans plan to express their repudiation of the dysfunctional political system with a U.S. version of “Tahrir Square” beginning Oct. 6, the tenth anniversary of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. (See: http://october2011.org/statement.)

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer in the early Sixties and then served as a CIA analyst for 27 years. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).


10 comments for “Obama on the Backs of the Poor

  1. Thom Schiera
    August 8, 2011 at 12:55

    Dear Ray McGovern….
    3 FACTS regarding your comments in…”Obama on the backs of the poor”. If you choose…you can continue to pretend these facts don’t exist:

    1. Keynesian economics is a faulted philosophy. It has never helped the poor (if, in fact that is the desired intention)…rather is has ALWAYS resulted in a very damaging impact on the poor.This is true wherever in the world it has been tried…and it is true in this Obama presidency. In spite of the daily spins printed as news in main stream media, the people of this country are becoming more and more aware of the damage it is doing to every sector…unemployment, recession, housing, and the growing disparity between the haves and the have nots….the statists must restructure the argument to show that all would be okay if only those “oppressive conservatives” would leave us alone. It becomes increasingly evident that the best way forward for statists is to suggest that Obama has suddenly adopted conservative values and it is conservatives values not progressive positions that are damaging our country.

    2. The best way to help the poor, wherever they may be, is to support a strong robust economy driven by a constitutional capitalist system. PERIOD.
    For the Federal government to interfer with services that have always been better provided by the family, the church and the charities is not only counterproductive, but unconstitutional.

    2a. James Madison is the acknowledged father of the constitution. In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 for relief of French refugees who fled from insurrection in San Domingo to Baltimore and Philadelphia. James Madison wrote disapprovingly, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” Today, at least two-thirds of a $2.5 trillion federal budget is spent on the “objects of benevolence.” That includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, aid to higher education, farm and business subsidies, welfare, ad nauseam.

    A few years later, James Madison’s vision was expressed by Representative William Giles of Virginia, who condemned a relief measure for fire victims. Giles insisted that it was neither the purpose nor a right of Congress to “attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require.”

    2b. In 1827, Davy Crockett was elected to the House of Representatives. During his term of office a $10,000 relief measure was proposed to assist the widow of a naval officer. Davy Crockett eloquently opposed the measure saying, “Mr. Speaker: I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the suffering of the living, if there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has not the power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member on this floor knows it. We have the right as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money.”

    2c. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a popular measure to help the mentally ill saying, “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity.” To approve the measure “would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.”
    2e. During President Grover Cleveland’s two terms in office, he vetoed many congressional appropriations, often saying there was no constitutional authority for such an appropriation. Vetoing a bill for relief charity, President Cleveland said, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”

    Above 2a, 2b, 2c, 2d, 2e from: http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/wew/articles/fee/constitution.html

    3. Jefferson, Madison, Crockett, Pierce, Cleveland….would you maintain, Mr. McGovern, that these are some of the “soft minded” men Dr. King had in mind?

    Cite a poll…any poll…and we will find that fewer than 20% of the people in this country consider themselves progressive or socialist. Yet The White House and most of Congress are statists. A cabal? …don’t think so…rather an abdication of responsibility of what used to be “a free press”. With technology, that is changing, and as the truth reaches more and more people, we will have fewer and fewer on the “blind to reality” side…and a far better condition for the poor of our country and the world.


  2. Paul Ziegler
    August 4, 2011 at 12:19

    I think Obama would happily sign liberal legeslation if you gave him liberal legislators to work with. I suggest than everyone who agrees with the above article select several of their conservative republican friends who claim to be religious and in september 2012 email them a copy of Mathew chapters 5-7 (The Sermon on the Mount) and Amos chapter 5 (“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”)and tell them to vote Democratic. You can clip the chapters from http://www.blueletterbible.org

  3. Mark Kaplan
    August 4, 2011 at 02:25

    Tahrir Square for America should be began by an occupation of Times Square, and the destruction of the US Army Recruiting center — in full view of dozens of television cameras above. Unfortunately, the American Left doesn’t have the balls to create this confrontation. We’re too self-satisfied and lazy.

  4. TrishaJ
    August 4, 2011 at 00:20

    I find John Boehner’s repeated claim that he is Catholic very disturbing. I too am Catholic and I find his actions not only not in accord with Catholic teaching, but not in line with any truly Christian beliefs.

    His actions during the so called debt limit crisis moved me to forward to him a link to the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church which I suggested he might want to read if he was going to continue to claim Catholicism as his faith.

  5. Masood
    August 3, 2011 at 18:24

    Longtime ago a conservative talk show host stated that a country is judged by how it treats its young and the old. This country has shown that it cares for neither. As a muslim I whole heartedly agree with Mr. McGovern. Islam also teaches sharing the wealth. The problem is that if the mosques tried to raise their voices favoring this concept, there will be such a hysteria in this counry about “Muslims trying to impose Sharia law” that even those who are in favor of it will turn against it. The answer is the US version of “Tahrir Square” in Washington DC at the Washington Memorial.

  6. bill
    August 3, 2011 at 18:18

    I wonder, where is the moral outrage? We have no money to build schools or pay teachers, but prisons seem to be cropping up all over the place. Our military is being floated by what somebody smarter than I am has called a “poverty draft”. I work in a military health facility. Every day, I see kids who had never been to a doctor or a dentist until they enlisted. When you encounter a 42 year old private, you have to ask yourself: “Is this patriotism…or poverty? It is heartbreaking to imagine the suffering some of these kids have endured, and what they would continue to endure if it wasn’t for The Army.
    Proud as I am of my service, I am saddened to think that the only place these kids, many of them minorities, can get a fair shake is in the military. So, where is the moral outrage? How can we watch the gulf between middle class and poor widen to middle class and abject poverty? How can African American communities watch their children being herded off to prison in disproportionate numbers, when the root cause of their dilemma has been manufactured by corporate manipulation of our courts, our tax codes and our media?
    How can it be that people stand by and allow themselves, the means of production, to be used as nothing more than a labor-pool subject to the whims of market swings? They used to call it slavery. Now, they call it wage slavery, and nobody protests.
    How can it be that for so many minorities, and “white” people as well, that the only future is prison or poverty? Where is the moral outrage? We are in the process of bequeathing a hellish future to our children. Nobody “graduates” from prison with anything but a grudge and a curse. That’s where you go to get a “Masters Degree” in crime and violence.
    America looks at itself in the mirror, but doesn’t see what the rest of the world sees. They don’t want to be like us. When I was a kid, they did, and that America has been stolen from my children. White people and People of Color alike should be outraged that we provide military aid to countries that indiscriminately bomb and maim their minority populations. But we can’t keep our children out of poverty or prison.
    Where is the moral outrage? I will share an anecdote about my grandfather, a Union Member and a Railroader. He had a little tiny farm and a flock of chickens in rural West Virginia. One day, a local bigot showed up on the property and wanted to strike up a conversation with Grandpa. The bigot’s nickname was “Cuppy”. I was about eight years old. It was a rare thing to see my grandfather lose his temper. But Cuppy wanted to talk about black people. My grandfather asked Cuppy, “You see that chicken manure? What do you suppose every one of those white spots on top of that chicken manure is?” Cuppy was at a loss for words, and said, “I don’t know”. Grandpa answered, “Well Cuppy, that’s shit too”.
    We are marching down a road that looks an awful lot like fascism. I am afraid for my children, and every one else’s children as well. The greatest minds are speaking, but nobody is listening. I would point to economist Richard Wolff and historian Michael Parenti as a few good examples. There are many others. Where is the moral outrage?

  7. Jacob
    August 3, 2011 at 17:39

    If I were the president, I would first apologize to all the widows and orphans, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism. Then I would announce that America’s global interventions have come to an end; and inform Israel that it is no longer the 51st state. I would then reduce the military budget by at least 90% and use the savings to help human beings. On the 4th day, I’d be assassinated.

    i have voted in each and every election since 1973. How many more years is it going to take for you people to realize that the system is rigged. Running candidates is futile. The dynastic plutocratic families won’t allow candidates who stand with the People to win the Presidency. Even if they did, they would find a way to neutralize them. The time for reform is over. We need to stop what we are doing for the time being and join the Peaceful Revolution to stand up to the dynastic plutocratic families and corporate oligarchs and usher in a Whole New Way of Living rooted in Love and Wisdom. What are you all waiting for?

  8. rosemerry
    August 3, 2011 at 16:32

    Thanks for Ray’s thoughtful and compassionate article. I feel very sad that so many “Christians” and Jews fall so far short of what their faith should expect of them. So much emphasis is on fighting and controlling others, and so little effort is on understanding differences. There is only so much anyone can spend in a lifetime, and billionaires really should not exist, as the value of any person’s contributions cannot possibly be so far above the norm that they can be considered “earners” of that amount. How even Repugs can support further enrichment of the top 0.1% of the population I cannot comprehend. How everyday Mercans can accept that corporations have more rights than humans, that Israel is more important than US interests, and that God is on the side of the banksters, is beyond me.

  9. Reba Stone
    August 3, 2011 at 14:15

    Mr. McGovern is right on target. As a supporter of President Obama, I am extremely disappointed in what is happening to our country and how ineffective the President has been. Time to end the wars, end the Bush tax cuts and time to end subsidies to oil, gas and coal. Also time for those responsible for the debt crisis to be punished.

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