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Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition

Barack Obama has aroused a wider range of emotions than any other figure in the recent history of the United States of America. At first, he was hailed as a saviour. Now, conser­vatives vilify him as a socialist and an undercover Muslim, while the left dismisses him as a lily-livered technocrat, stuck in a Washington bubble and unable to reach out to those who elected him.

Readers of James T Kloppenberg's book will be surprised, therefore, when they realise that the Harvard historian portrays Obama as a great healer of social divisions. The Obama of Kloppenberg's imagination is a "pragmatist". He is dedicated to overcoming the tensions in American life. He believes that the president should not fight for what he believes in as an individual, but should help the American people to discover shared ground instead. Kloppenberg's Obama is a reconciler. He brings people together by encouraging them to abandon orthodoxies and experiment with new solutions, to leave behind social animosities in pursuit of civic friendships.

Much of Kloppenberg's interpretation resonates with Obama's self-image. Ever since winning the presidency, he has pursued a policy of moderation. He has sought out bipartisan consensus in Washington, DC. He has appointed Republicans to his cabinet, dropped the most controversial aspects of signature legislative initiatives, restrained his macro­economic stimulus, and, most recently of all, permitted the Republicans in Congress to maintain the grotesque Bush-era tax cuts for America's most wealthy. Similarly, he has sought to clear a middle path in defence, increasing the US presence in Afghanistan while withdrawing from Iraq, and in cultural affairs, pressing the Republicans on gay personnel in the military, for example, while holding back on gay rights to marriage.

To Kloppenberg, these efforts are not the product of political cowardice. Rather, they are the consequence of a political philosophy with deep roots. The great thinkers of American politics, the author argues, have always understood that a nation as vast and diverse as the United States requires a politics of reconciliation, not one of excessive certainty. America, according to this reading, flourishes when it is open to novelty and to consensus, and fails when it falls foul of doctrinaire ideology and closed-mindedness.

It should come as no surprise that Tony Blair offers exactly the same reading of Obama in A Journey. Both Kloppenberg and Blair insist that those who criticise him are so locked in their own visions of what is "right" and "wrong" that they fail to notice that they live in a deeply divided society where it is impossible to govern well other than by seeking consensus. Those who call for Obama to push for vast, Keynesian-style economic policies are, according to this account, blighted in exactly the same way as those who denounce health insurance regulation as socialism. They know what they want, but fail to recognise that they live among others who disagree deeply.

In stressing this pragmatism, Kloppenberg shows Obama as he really is. Yet this does not mean that Kloppenberg has all the answers.

Far from it. After all, America is more, not less, socially divided now than it was when Obama came to power. Rather than developing a civic "willingness to deliberate, and a commitment to compromise in order to reach provisional agreement", US politics has experienced the phenomenal growth of the Tea Party: a political movement that believes that any deviation from the certainties of the Founding Fathers is heretical. Whatever his aspirations, Obama has not been the greater healer.

Kloppenberg has no easy explanation for this failure. If the president has made the effort to find a shared ground, why haven't other Americans followed suit? Could it be that they are just too intolerant, inflexible, or even just plain stupid to realise what their president is trying to do for them? Kloppenberg's answer to this question seems to be "yes". The great reconciler has been let down by those he is trying to bring together.

But there is another explanation lurking in the pages of Kloppenberg's book. Early in Obama's career, he worked as a community organiser in Chicago. The author's account of him in these years is profoundly revealing. He presents the young Obama as deeply troubled by the willingness of his fellow organisers to pick a fight with those in power, rather than find new ways of working together. His response? In Kloppenberg's phrase, "Obama decided that a law degree would make him a more effective advocate for residents of Chicago's poorest neighbourhoods" than a career in community organising.

Everything that is wrong with Kloppenberg's Obama emerges from this discussion. The belief that politics in a society as vastly unequal as the US could ever do without its battles and brutality displays not only a shocking naivety, but also an unwillingness to acknowledge the real circumstances of American political life. Most of Obama's fellow organisers knew that confrontation was a vital first step to a true politics of reconciliation. A consensus requires partners who can look each other in the eye. Pragmatism that does not acknowledge the necessity of struggle finds a common good for the powerful alone. Second, the notion that escape to the comforts of an elite institution can ever fully be justified in the name of a political cause displays a breathtaking talent for self-deception. The comforts of university and great office are understandably very tempting, but we should never fool ourselves that this is where progress in politics begins.

Obama is undeniably right to insist that what America needs is a new ethic of reconciliation. He is also right to warn us of the dangers of excessive certainty. But he is wrong if he believes that the common good is forged in the seminar room or between the parties on Capitol Hill. The common good emerges when power is called to account by people coming together in the communities that they love.

Obama's colleagues in Chicago knew that. Many of those who rallied to Obama in 2008 knew it, too. Their hope was that the new president would help engender this kind of politics. They are still waiting.

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition
James T Kloppenberg
Princeton University Press, 296pp, £16.95

Marc Stears teaches political theory at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is "Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics" (Princeton University Press, £20.95)

Marc Stears is fellow in politics, University College, Oxford and visiting fellow at IPPR.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.