CNN’s post-speech discussion of Barack Obama’s State of the Union address included anchor Wolf Blitzer’s reaction to colleague Jake Tapper’s view that the president had outlined a liberal economic agenda. Blitzer’s analysis illustrates the logic behind corporate media’s longstanding efforts to dissuade politicians from advocating for progressive policies:
TAPPER: Of course, most of the speech, the body of the speech, was a very progressive, very liberal economic message about trying to help the middle class…. [It] was about new tax cuts, about the $3,000 per child per year, paid sick leave or paid maternity leave, raising the minimum wage, lowering the cost of community college to zero.
BLITZER: I think it’s fair to say, had he put forward all these new initiatives before the midterm elections–was afraid to do so, because he feared it could hurt Democrats who were up in a tough reelection or election season. As a result, he didn’t do any of those things before the midterms, but now after the midterms, [with] two years to go, he feels emboldened, almost liberated, ready to move on with these new very progressive or very liberal initiatives.
According to Blitzer, policy proposals such as paid sick leave and maternity leave, an increased minimum wage and free community college are all liabilities to pragmatic Democrats concerned with winning elections–which explains Obama’s reticence prior to November’s midterm elections. However, public opinion polls show widespread support for those measures, including, in many cases, from Republican voters.
A CNN poll (6/9/14) found 71 percent of the public supporting an increase in the minimum wage, including a majority of Republicans and conservatives. In November, voters in the Republican-leaning states of Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Alaska passed ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage by large margins (Huffington Post, 11/4/14).
A HuffPost/YouGov poll (6/20/13) found that 74 percent of the US public supports requiring companies to offer paid sick leave to their employees; paid maternity leave garnered 61 percent approval. In a number of recent polls, the idea of free community college received majority support (The Hill, 1/20/15)–one poll found that more Republicans favored the measure than opposed it, rather remarkable given that the idea was only recently popularized by President Obama himself.
So it’s not voters’ preferences that, in Blitzer’s words, “could hurt Democrats” facing elections. A likelier reason is election funding. Political scientists Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson observed that politicians largely depended on financing from economic elites (AlterNet, 12/18/14) in what were probably the most expensive midterms in history (Washington Post, 10/22/14)
The president and the Democratic Party are almost as dependent on big money–defined, for example, in terms of the percentage of contributions (over $500 or $1,000) from the 1 percent–as the Republicans. To expect top-down, money-driven political parties to make strong economic appeals to voters is idle.
In the context of low-turnout elections largely financed by economic elites, policies such as minimum wage increases and paid sick leave, which force financial concessions from the wealthy, do indeed “hurt Democrats.” It is in part this conflict that explains high-profile Democrats’ lack of advocacy on those measures. As The Atlantic reported (6/18/14), “Hillary Clinton isn’t against federally mandated family leave–she just doesn’t think it’s politically feasible”:
“I think, eventually, it should be [implemented],” Clinton said at CNN’s town-hall meeting Tuesday to promote her new book, Hard Choices. But she immediately qualified her position: “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.”…
A bipartisan poll conducted on behalf of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a pro-leave group, just after the 2012 election, found that 86 percent of Americans supported leave–including 96 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans. The poll inspired new hope that President Obama might take up leave in his second term.
Instead–vindicating Clinton’s opinion that leave is politically impossible right now–the issue has all but disappeared.
Although congressional Democrats had crafted the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which provided employees with 12 weeks of paid leave, President Obama did not endorse the bill (The Week, 6/27/14). The Washington Post (6/23/14) found that “five and a half years after taking office, Obama has no proposal on the table for paid family leave.”
Now that Barack Obama faces Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Blitzer characterizes the president as “liberated” and “emboldened” to stake out a policy agenda that is now safely off the table. Policies that promote economic justice, which are broadly popular, are considered divisive within the corporate media until they’re rendered impossible. Then media pundits can wink at one other about how politicians are shrewdly courting voters with agendas they cannot possibly fulfill.
And what does it look like when politicians heed the corporate media’s call for bipartisanship? Obama’s full-throated advocacy for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in his State of the Union is one example. The highly secretive, pro-corporate trade agreement threatens to exacerbate the very inequality that the president sought to highlight in his speech, and is opposed by leading economists and many top legislators of own party (Huffington Post, 1/20/15, 1/21/15).
In an article headlined “Poll Finds Agenda Gap Between Leaders, American People,” the Wall Street Journal (1/21/15) noted President Obama’s priority of signing the trade deal was met by a public “virtually yawning at the prospect.” Only 20 percent considered it an “urgent priority,” the paper noted.
Thomas Ferguson offered a simple commentary on this agenda gap (Real News Network, 12/27/14): “You’ve been running these sort of big money-driven elections for quite some time, and it’s policy disappointment that’s driving down the voter turnout.” A far better strategy, he suggested, would be “to do something for the population instead of the 1 percent.”
If politicians were to ignore corporate pundits and instead energized otherwise-apathetic voters with an actual commitment to popular policies, they would offer a solution to voters’ yawns.