Obama's $40 Payroll Tax Cut Speech: Smart, But Lacking


On Thursday President Barack Obama gave a speech attacking house Republicans for resisting passage of a two month extension of the payroll tax cut while a longer, yearlong cut is negotiated. In his speech, the president drew on responses from ordinary Americans who had told the White House what the tax cut would mean for them. At one point, Obama quoted a man who said that the cut would mean three more days of heat for his house over the winter.

Involving the stories of ordinary Americans was the culmination of a well coordinated social media campaign asking people what $40 – the amount per month the payroll tax cut would likely save someone over the course of a whole year – meant to them. The White House originally tweeted the question, asking people to explain what they would do with the $40 using the hashtag #40dollars, and the question was also at the heart of the White House's facebook page over the past 48 hours.

What I like about this campaign is that it got ordinary people involved in politics by allowing them to share their stories, but what I don't like is that the president's speech papered over fundamental issues and propagandized the hardships of ordinary Americans.

The rhetoric about partisanship in this speech was classic Obama. At one point, the president played to the growing anger most people feel toward Washington by saying, “Has this place become so dysfunction that even when we agree to things we can't do it?” In typical Obama post-partisan style, the issue is framed as one that everyone already agrees about. But that can't be true, because we haven't passed the bill yet. The problem is precisely that disagreement remains.

Recall also, that this rhetorical scheme was the same tactic Obama used in his job's speech, in which he claimed that most of the things he was proposing were already supported by Republicans. Obama's attempt to meet every disagreement with the claim that there is already disagreement is a losing strategy and it's starting to come off as very patronizing.

I'm uncomfortable with the use of ordinary Americans as propaganda props. The payroll tax will help people by giving them more money, but it will also cost the government revenue, which must be made up by less spending or more taxes elsewhere or else with borrowing. Should I tweet to the president what I won't be able to do with $40 in 30 years when I have to pay back the borrowed money that was used to pay for this?

This is not to say that I don't support the extension. I do, but my point is that rather than cherry-picking tweets that support his position, the president would be better to focus on addressing the real disagreement that is out there. If Boehner and company support a yearlong extension, as they claim, then what possibly opposition could they have to expanding it for one year. It sounds like hypocrisy or deception to me (but I'm open to hearing a better rationale, but for now I'm just going by Boehner's own press release). If I you say that you can play basketball for one hour and I want to play for two, then it doesn't seem like I can turn around and say that I won't meet you to play because you won't play for the full two hours that I want. Same thing for Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). If he wants a yearlong extension, then why fight a two month extension?

The White House has dominated this debate in terms of the optics, and ordinary people have had the opportunity to be a part of politics. I applaud those developments. I just worry that we're still trying to deal with our political problems on the sly rather than rising to meet them. Obama's speech should have just talked about the economic and welfare effects of an extension and the logical point that being in favor of a yearlong extension requires being in favor of shorter extensions.

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