It might seem like an odd analogy, but the more that I view some of the policy changes by President Barack Obama, the more they seem to bear a similarity to the changes implemented by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. While I’m just an occasional Facebook user, I can’t help but notice how significant changes occur overnight, with no advance warning or even foreshadowing. Generally they are confusing, at least in the beginning, and tend to frustrate the Facebook base.
Our non-profit organization sponsors events for students. I can’t help but notice how when we invite students to the events through Facebook, the responses that are available to invitees change frequently, for no apparent reason and with no clear explanation. An example would be how Facebook formerly made it easy for an invitee to respond “maybe;” now they’ve complicated it without explanation.
I knew this “pulling the rug out from underneath us” reminded me of something. Unfortunately, it is the way in which President Barack Obama seems to turn on a dime on important policy issues. Some people theorize that it’s because he chooses to negotiate with himself before he negotiates with political opponents. Whatever the motivation, it’s frustrating, because you wake up in the morning and find that like Facebook, he has made changes without explanation or forewarning.
A few examples include:
1. Abandoning the public option in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009. The public option was the linchpin of insurance reform, because it essentially meant that insurance companies would have to compete against the efficiency of government-run program that, by definition, would save money because it was not profit-driven. One day the public option was part of President Obama’s plan; the next day, it mysteriously disappeared.
2. Reducing the payroll tax, more accurately called premiums for Social Security, in the middle of the 2010 year-end lame duck session with Congress, a Democratic Congress at that. No one was asking for the cut even if it would help working people, because it would also hurt them by downgrading the long-term solvency of Social Security.
The payroll tax is regressive in nature; it takes the same percentage of out of a paycheck for someone earning $1,000 a year as someone earning 100 times as much. After that it gets worse, because following the first $106,800, the tax is not applied to earnings. Most wage earners have all their income subject to Social Security and Medicare withholding. But if your name is Albert Pujols, and you will be paid $252 million over the next ten years, you will pay into Social Security from only four-tenths of one percent of your income. The remaining $250,932,000 that he earns between now and 2021 will not be subject to payroll withholding.
There’s clearly something wrong with that picture. If President Obama was going to support reducing the payroll tax in order to help ordinary wage earners, then he needed to insist on raising the top salary to which Social Security contributions applied. Perhaps there needed to be no ceiling, which then would make it economically sound to reduce the rate for low and middle income workers. But this was not the path that the President took, and it happened out of nowhere. The Republicans didn’t even ask for it from him. This was a classic case of him apparently negotiating with himself.
3. In the fall of 2011, President Obama insisted that if the payroll contributions were going to remain reduced, the lost revenue would be made up by rescinding some of the Bush tax cuts of the early 2000’s. The Bush tax cuts were especially sweet for everyone making over $250,000. President Obama is willing to maintain the status quo for those making between $250,000 and one million dollars. He was merely asking that the maximum tax rate for income earned above and beyond one million dollars a year be taxed at a rate of 39.6% rather than 36%.
The Republicans call this class warfare against the wealthy. For months, the President stood up to this specious argument and said that he would veto any bill that did not raise taxes on the very wealthy. Then in mid-December, he collaborated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to say that the Democrats were no longer wedded to raising the taxes on the very rich. Again, no Democrat asked him to back away from his principles; he just decided to do so. The Republicans were like sharks who sense blood. Even though this issue is not completely resolved, it seems as if restoring previous tax rates for the wealthy is history. Republicans have won that battle.
So as strange as it seems, when I wake up each day, I am a little trepidatious that Barack Obama or Mark Zuckerberg is going to blindside me and millions of other people with an unannounced change. Zuckerberg I can live with. But with President Obama, it would be very comforting to know that when he sacrifices principles or liberal policies, he does so under pressure. What he has done all too frequently is give us change we cannot believe in. I hope that changes.