Joe Biden is Obama's secret weapon

Mitt Romney has a credibility problem.

Shepard Smith, the Fox news anchor, was talking about Mitt Romney's "friendship" with Newt Gingrich when he said it, but the sentiment could apply categorically.

"Politics is weird. And creepy. And now I know lacks even the loosest attachment to anything like reality."

I laugh every time I watch that video.

There is indeed something weird about Romney's singular focus on the economy when he, as the former head of a private-equity firm that bought and dismantled companies for profit, knows as much about job creation as a butcher knows about animal husbandry.

There's something creepy about a Republican ignoring tried-and-true red-meat issues, like gay marriage or immigration or "religious liberty," with which Republicans are historically good at dividing and suppressing votes.

And there's something truly surreal about Romney's avoidance of the words "George W. Bush." In Florida last week, Romney said that Obama doubled the national debt but didn't mention the part about the stimulus program, the auto bailout and the fact that George W. Bush added $4 trillion to the debt. (In fact, it was Vice President Dick Cheney who said deficits don't matter.) Evidently, Romney is banking on memory loss but just to be sure, he's avoiding Bush's name so as not to remind us where much of that debt actually came from.

Yet there was a moment of clarity last week of the kind that comes from having the scales fall from your eyes to see the truth about America's classless society. The Obama campaign released a video about the time Bain Capital, the Wall Street firm Romney once headed, took ownership of a steel mill in Kansas City. Former workers recalled Bain loading the mill up with debt, filing for bankruptcy, firing employees, closing the mill, shirking pension obligations, and walking away with a smile.

Let me say this. My father is a truck driver. He hauled steel for more than a decade. He was proud, as most white working-class men are, and he saw what happens when rich guys take over a steel mill. They don't care about the important stuff, only money, and even when they have "enough," as my dad would say, they want more until the company is bled to death. The Obama camp was careful to avoid appearing to be anti-private equity (since so many firm directors give to the Democratic Party), just anti-vulture capitalism. But that kind of hairsplitting means little to working-class men like my father. They know the truth when they see it.

Shortly after it released the video, the Obama campaign released "The Biden," as they like to say. That is, Joe Biden, the vice president, who actually comes from working-class stock. Picking Biden as his running mate was brilliant, but we didn't see it as such four years ago. With the economy still humping along, with Romney as the richest man ever to run for the White House, with unlimited sums of money being poured into this election -- all this makes it crystal clear why a cool and rational wonk like Obama needs a pulpit-pounder like Biden.

The campaign "released" Biden on Youngstown, Ohio, an old mill town gone to seed like rest of the Rust Belt that rings around the Great Lakes. In a speech, Biden took on the notion that complaints about inequality and injustice are rooted in envy. "[Romney] doesn't get what's at the core of all this. It's about people's dignity." He went on:

I resent when they talk about families like mine, what I grew up in. I resent the fact that they think we're talking about envy. It's job-envy. It's wealth-envy. That we don't dream. My mother and my father believed that if I wanted to, I could be President of the United States, I could be Vice President. My mother and father believed that if my brother and sister wanted to be a millionaire, they could be a millionaire. My mother and father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams. They don't get us. They don't get who we are.

As Bob Moser, of the American Prospect, said: "This wasn’t Obama’s brand of 'class warfare,' which never actually sounds like a declaration of war. This was righteous fury. The real thing. From the gut."

Biden's right. Romney has a credibility problem. He told college students that a simple solution to the rising cost of tuition is to borrow from your parents. He made a bet with Rick Perry (who didn't accept) for $10,000. He said speaking fees of over $300,000 "wasn't much money." And he said his wife drives not one but two Cadillacs.

There's another reason why Romney "doesn't get what's at the core of all this." As the American economy has shown signs of tepid but incremental improvement, Romney has pivoted to focus on debt. The hope, I suspect, is that talk about the national debt will sound so big and scary, as it did two summers ago, that Romney will seem to be the most sensible choice.

But most people don't understand debt, and they don't want to. They understand their own (which is bad), but not the federal government's (which might be good, it depends). What they do understand is jobs. Their jobs and the jobs of the people they love. I'd bet that in the minds of most Americans, the national deficit is big and scary, and somebody ought to do something about it, but it's not as pressing or immediately felt as losing one's job, health insurance, home -- or sense of dignity.

Perhaps politics does lack even the loosest attachments to reality. That's certainly a luxury Romney and the others of the 1 percent can afford. For the rest us, though, this is the real thing. Life lived from the gut.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.