Politics & Society

Obama’s Compromise Bad For Blacks?

President Obama Holds News Conference Discussing Tax Cut Deal

hide captionPresident Obama speaks during a news conference after announcing a deal with Republicans to temporarily extend Bush-era tax cuts to Americans in all tax brackets.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Lester K. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He shares his insight on his blog The Future is Here.

On Monday, President Obama emerged from negotiations with Republican leaders, with an agreement to extend tax cuts passed under George W. Bush, in exchange for extended unemployment benefits and other stuff. Although Obama campaigned against such an extension, the November elections outcome caused him to compromise with the GOP.

This compromise troubles me and should trouble black voters.

President Bush and the Republican Congress passed the tax cut in 2001 with three goals in mind. The first goal was straightforward: The GOP desires to redistribute wealth upward and to pass the costs of government increasingly downward.

The second (related) goal was to further create a unified tax cut constituency. Although no one particularly likes paying taxes, for decades most Americans not only thought that it was necessary, we thought those with the ability to pay a lot, should pay more while others should pay less. While some conservatives believe taxes are necessary, most hate the idea of progressive taxation. But the only way to attack progressive taxation was to reduce taxes for everyone. By creating a large group of middle-class and working class tax-cut supporters, they can reduce support for progressive taxation.

This, by the way, is why Republicans held unemployment insurance hostage – because any attempt to restore progressive taxation threatens to break the unified tax constituency apart.

The third goal is to reduce the ability of the Democratic Party to govern for all time. Hear me out.

Members of the GOP consider themselves to be enemies of “big government.” Ignore for a second the fact that government (and debt) usually grows under the GOP. There are two ways to prevent “big government policies” from becoming embedded in government. The first is obvious – get elected to office so that you can either repeal “big government” policies, or vote in “small government” policies. The second is less obvious – vote in policies that make it exceedingly difficult for the DNC to implement the policies they are interested in implementing.

Now the tax cuts hurt black populations in, at least, two ways.

In as much as blacks have far less wealth than whites – Lebron James and his ilk, aside – we received far less from this deal than did our counterparts. And let’s be clear: it isn’t as if average whites gained a lot themselves. Wealthy whites gained the lion’s share of the benefits. And similarly, in as much as reducing the Democratic Party’s ability to govern keeps blacks from having their needs met, the tax cuts don’t just hurt blacks now. They will hurt blacks in the future as well. Obama is purposely putting off the specific conversation about the deficit and the larger conversation about what government should do. And if he’s not going to have the conversation now – when his name’s not on the ballot – there’s no reason to expect him to have the conversation in two years when it is.

The left is becoming increasingly disappointed with Obama. Rather than rally behind him because of his historical significance, it might be a good idea for black people to think critically about whether they are any better off now, than they were two years ago. And if the answer is no, then we should think about ways to ensure that the next compromise Obama makes isn’t with the Republican Party. It’s with us.

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