Monday, February 15, 2010

Remembering Joe the Plumber

Back in October 2008 - during the waning months of the heated presidential campaign being waged by Democrat Barack Obama against Republican John McCain - an unlicensed plumber named Samuel Wurzelbacher confronted Obama about the Democrat's economic policies (or at least what he perceived them as being).

“I'm getting ready to buy a company that makes between $250,000 and $280,000 a year. Your new tax plan is gonna tax me more, isn't it?"

President Obama responded with the following:

"Well, here's what's gonna happen. If you're a small business, which you would qualify, first of all, you'd get a 15% tax credit, so you'd get a cut of taxes for your health care costs, so you would actually get a tax cut on that front. If you're revenue is above $250,000, then from $250,000 down, your taxes are gonna stay the same. It is true that from $250,00o up - from $250,000 to $300,000 or so..."

At this point Joe the Plumber, who at that point had been greeting Obama's technical explanation with an uncomprehending stare, attempted to interrupt him, although he was quickly stopped when Obama insisted that he be allowed to complete his explanation.

"So for that additional amount, you go from 36% to 39%, which is what it was under Bill Clinton. And the reason we're doing that is because 95% of small businesses make less than $250,000, so what I want to do is give them a tax cut. I want to give all these folks who are bus drivers, teachers, auto workers who make less, I want to give them a tax cut. And so what we're doing is, we are saying that the folks who make more than $250,000, that that marginal amount above $250,000, they're going to be taxed at a 39% instead of 36% rate."

From here Joe the Plumber went on to lecture Senator Obama about "the American Dream", generously sprinkling within his monologue references to his own impeccable work ethic and ending with a none-too-subtle stab at Obama's plan by declaring that, as he expanded his business, he would "taxed more and more for fulfilling the American dream". After catching up on the history of Joe's plumbing business, Obama then explained that:

"Over the last fifteen years, when you weren't making $250,000, you would have been getting a tax cut from me, so you'd actually have more money, which means you would have saved more, which means that you would have gotten to the point where you could build your small business quicker than under the current tax code. So there are two ways of looking at it: One way of looking at it is, now that you've become more successful..."

"Through hard work!" Joe the Plumber interrupted, his voice filled with righteousness.

"... through hard work, you don't want to be taxed as much."

"Exactly!"

"Which I understand, but another way of looking at it is, 95% of folks who are making less than $250,000, they may be working hard too, but they're being taxed at a higher rate than they would be under mine... Put yourself back ten years ago, when you were only making $60,000 or $70,000. Under my tax plan, you would be keeping more of your paycheck, and you'd be receiving lower taxes, which means that you would have saved and you would have gotten to the point where you are faster... What's happened is that we've cut taxes a lot for folks like me, who make a lot more than $250,000, we haven't given a break to folks who make less, and as a consequence the average wage and income for just ordinary folks, the vast majority of Americans, has actually gone down over the last eight years... It's not that I want to punish your success, I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance at success too."

After a brief discussion on the merits and disadvantages of a flat tax, Obama then made the comment that soon catapulted "Joe the Plumber" to the status of national celebrity:

"I don't paying just a little bit more than the waitress, who I just met over there, whose things are slow, and she can barely make the rent, because my attitude is that if the economy is good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're gonna be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you. And right now everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody, and I think that when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

Later on, Wurzelbacher had this to say about Obama's response:

“His answer actually scared me even more. He said he wants to distribute wealth. And I mean, I’m not trying to make statements here, but, I mean, that’s kind of a socialist viewpoint. You know, I work for that. You know, it’s my discretion who I want to give my money to; it’s not for the government decide that I make a little too much and so I need to share it with other people. That’s not the American Dream.”

I am relaying this story for a simple reason: Joe the Plumber has returned. What's more - even though America has undergone enormous changes in the sixteen months since Wurzelbacher's amiable chat with Obama - Joe the Plumber's attitudes have remained remarkably static. After attacking Senator John McCain for "using" him to garner votes during the 2008 presidential election (an accusation that smacks of ingratitude, considering that Wurzelbacher was more than willing to lap up all the spotlight he could get whenever McCain offered it to him at the time), Wurzelbacher proceeds to insult President Obama for having an ideology that is "un-American".

All of this is noteworthy for a very simple reason: Whenever grassroots conservatives claim that their opposition to Obama is based solely on the policies he has pursued as president, it should be remembered that individuals who are widely regarded as emblematic of their movement (such as Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher) have been accusing Obama of being "un-American" and "socialistic" before he was even elected. What's more, they were then - and remain now - remarkably obtuse to the content of what Barack Obama tells them. Even though Obama's response to Wurzelbacher's inquiry presented an ideology that was center-left at best, Wurzelbacher managed to seize on one phrase, place it out of context, and grossly distort its meaning so as to permit him to continue viewing Obama through his pre-conceived notions. Let me repeat that last sentence, for the sake of emphasis:

Even though Obama's response to Wurzelbacher's inquiry presented an ideology that was center-left at best, Wurzelbacher managed to seize on one phrase, place it out of context, and grossly distort its meaning so as to permit him to continue viewing Obama through his pre-conceived notions.

When asked to account for his policy proposals, Obama provided Wurzelbacher with an answer that was not only straightforward and thorough (even though Joe the Plumber later claimed that Obama had "tap-danced" around the subject like "Sammy Davis, Jr."), but which made it abundantly clear that cherishers of capitalism had no need to fear an Obama presidency. Because this wasn't Wurzelbacher's ideological biases caused him to believe about Barack Obama, though, he simply disregarded them, and instead heard what he wanted to hear. This is a lesson that Obama and other liberals should keep in mind as the fight against believers in right-wing economic dogma continues to be waged.

I would like to end this blog post with two quotes from great American statesmen. See if you can identify their originators:

"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes... There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing."

"While we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else."

The first came from Andrew Jackson (1832); the second is from Abraham Lincoln (1860). Although logic doesn't appear to be Wurzelbacher's strong suit, if it was, he would realize - much to his shame - that the same philosophy he condemns in Obama as being "un-American" could be branded similarly in the presidents who appear on our $5 and $20 bills.

1 comment:

Gorga said...

An excellent post, Matt.