State of the safety net


The most recent U.S. national election intrigued the world. America’s credentials as a democracy were on the line. Barack Obama represented a new kind of politician and stark contrast to the incumbent, George W. Bush.

This week, the MSR begins a series of analysis and news stories that will examine the state of the U.S. “safety net,” that patchwork of government and private sector programs intended to shield citizens from the most destructive consequences of poverty, joblessness, illness, and other social conditions and individual misfortunes. Contributing Writer Karl Johnson begins the series with some historical background needed to understand the current status of our safety net provisions.

On Saturday, February 10, 2007, when Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president of the United States, there was little national fanfare. Things change rapidly in national campaigns. Situations, strategy and priorities change with winners and losers in each state’s primaries.

As Barack Obama won more and more primaries, people began to read his books and listen to his speeches. His campaign theme was “A change we can believe in.”

After the American people became familiar with the humble beginnings of this community organizer from Chicago via Hawaii, who evolved into the editor of the Harvard Law Review, they recognized something they had been searching for in American politics for a long time: authenticity.

The national media continued to search for any weakness that they might find in his game. Each time there was an attempt to sideline his campaign, Obama countered with grace, substance and honesty.

Obama felt the winds of change blowing during the midterm elections of 2006. Before the election, the Republicans controlled 55 seats in the Senate to the Democrats’ 49 seats. In the House, the Republicans controlled 229 seats and the Democrats 202. Afterwards, however, the Democrats controlled 51 in the Senate and 233 in the House. The Congress of the United States was now controlled by the Democratic Party.

Obama’s charisma, command of facts, and unshakable demeanor, combined with shrewd mastery of the Internet, propelled him to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency of the United States. Individuals and organizations began to pour over his writings, speeches and past acquaintances searching for the Achilles heel.

During the middle of October, Obama was on camera in Toledo, Ohio, with Joe Wurzelbacher, AKA Joe the Plumber. During an exchange of words on the issue of a tax increase on persons who earned more than $250,000, Obama stated, “I think that when you spread the wealth around it’s good for everybody.”

The next day, one of the most conservative dailies, the New York Post, ran a headline reading, “Obama Fires a Robin Hood Warning Shot.” Most of us know that Robin Hood was one who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Obama’s remark to Joe the Plumber was focused on raising taxes. This is just the opposite of what the previous Republican administration had in mind in April of 2006, when George W. Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax-cut package was working its way through Congress.

As a matter of fact, Grover Norquist (former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s right hand in the mid-1990s and head of Americans for Tax Reform, described by Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation as the Field Marshal of the Bush Plan) stated, “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years–to get it down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” Norquist is described as the strategist and go-to guy in efforts by the Republicans to privatize Social Security and Medicare and get rid of the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Education.

However, “By the end of 2007,” according to Kevin Phillips’ Bad Money, government officials, mortgage lenders, packagers of asset-backed securities, and top financial executives faced an unexpected risk of their own: potential blame for what was starting to be imagined as the biggest U.S. housing crash since the Great Depression. Conservative White House regimes and Congresses, in turn, especially between 2003 and 2006, proposed variations on what they called the “Opportunity of Ownership Society.”

Through it, Social Security would be partially privatized, Medicaid would be cut back to encourage personal responsibility, and a variety of “personal accounts” would drive a stake into the heart of the federal insurance state. But voters withheld support, and most of these ideas had already failed by 2006, when the Democrats recaptured Congress.

The American people rejected the Republican agenda and elected Barack Obama. The first piece of legislation that the new president signed into law was the Lillie Ledbetter law. Upon signing the bill into law, Obama stated, “It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign–the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act–we are upholding one of this nation’s first principles: We are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness.”

At this point it would appear to most observers that the Republican interpretation of the social contract (see definition below) and the new Democratic administration’s interpretation of the social contract are opposing views. Combined with the statement of Joe the Plumber, the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the new president’s proposed budget, pundits began to associate the new president with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Next week: From FDR’s New Deal to the current economic crisis.
Karl Johnson welcomes reader responses to