Obama's real mandate is against America's bosses

When workers are given a clear choice, they choose the man who fights for them.

Did President Barack Obama win a mandate from the American people last week? Fox News appears to think he didn't. Some people didn't vote for him. Dick Morris doesn't see a mandate, though he foresaw a landslide for challenger Mitt Romney. Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican National Committee, said the election was pretty much a tie. And the Wall Street Journal said Republicans, by dint of holding on to the House of Representatives, have a mandate equal to the president's.

Bill Press offers a blunt retort

Those naysayers are not only pathetic, they're dead wrong. ... Obama didn't need the help of the Supreme Court. He won the election on his own. That's a mandate. With Florida, he won the electoral vote by 332 to 206. That's a mandate. ... He beat Romney in the popular vote by almost 3 million. That's a mandate.

What's missing from this debate, if it can be called that, is that Obama's mandate is unique in the context of modern presidential history. In past elections, incumbents ran on their record, and his campaign was generally seen as a referendum of that first term. But this time, the race for the White House was framed as a choice between conflicting worldviews. 

As Mother Jones' David Corn reports, Obama and his team chose to run on ideological grounds pretty much since the "shellacking" he received after the 2010 midterms. Obamacare, financial reform, the stimulus program, the killing of Osama bin Laden -- all of these are stunning and underrated achievements compared to other presidencies, and all could have been legitimate grounds for launching a referendum election. But Obama chose a "values-and-vision" platform. Do you want to return to the trickle-down economic policies of the past 30 years or do you want to move forward with fair economic policies that benefit everyone? 

Indeed, the president ran as an old-school Democrat, a populist for the people willing to speak for the forgotten Americans who face on their own the daily prospect of economic destruction. He successfully made the case that government should protect the people against the excesses of capitalism, and voters said yes. They want government to create more and better jobs. They want social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare. They want higher taxes on the rich. And they see no problem with greater public spending on infrastructure, education and energy. 

And Romney broadened and deepened that populist image. First by defending the supply-side policies of the Bush years (though, of course, he never uttered the word "Bush"). Then by pivoting from referendum strategy early in the campaign to a choice strategy some time over the summer. From that point onward, Romney helped Obama cast the race as a choice between worldviews: both, remarkably, characterized by class. Romney, emboldened by flawed polling that showed an electorate far more to the right than it actually is, sought to press an advantage that he didn't actually have. He thought he'd win the war of ideas, and he lost, badly.

Here's one way of looking at this: Populism is good for workers. Here's another way: It's bad for their bosses. The real bosses, the one per cent. For them, populism isn't rhetorical. They know what it means. They were listening when Obama railed against the rich for thinking they played by a different set of rules; when he said he'd go back and raise their taxes; when the crowds, in places like Ohio, gobbled it all up. If there's any doubt the bosses are worried, consider what they were prepared to do.

Prior to Election Day, Romney asked the CEOs of major corporations to "advise" employees to vote Republican. Sure, they said, warning workers they'd better support Romney or face unemployment. Georgia-Pacific, owned by the billionaire Koch brothers, did it. So did the heads of CintasASG Software Solutions and Rite-HitePapa John's and Applebee's said they'd shed payrolls before yielding to the demands of Obamacare. 

Wall Street is quaking. The big firms had bet big against the president, and after the election, the Dow Jones dropped by 2.4 per cent, or 320 points. Meanwhile, Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal mining company in the US, made good on its threat to can workers if Obama won. It laid off more than 150 workers this week, because it was in "survival mode". Future layoffs loom on the horizon. And even the rightist media followed suit. A literary blogger for Commentary, a Zionist neocon monthly, was sacked after making the conservative case for gay marriage. 

The political right lost the war of ideas and is now engaged in a guerrilla war against the president's mandate. Who knows how long that will last? What they don't seem to understand is that one goes with the other. The more Romney pushed a pro-boss agenda, the worse things got for him (conversely, as we saw after the first presidential debate, the less he pushed, the better off he was). And now that the campaign that gave expression to this war of ideas has ended, the bosses themselves are picking up where Romney left off, and they think they can win. 

They can't. But it will be fun to watch. The president won a mandate to champion the cause of Americans whose lives are threatened by economic forces beyond their control. The president has said that together we can make the country a more just place to live and work, and we can start by raising taxes on your bosses, the real bosses, the one per cent. And the people, by the widest margin ever given to a Democrat, said yes.

Now the bosses are making those abstract economic forces feel real by firing workers, and the more they do that, the more people have reason to stand behind the president.

We haven't hit a tipping point yet. Not by a long shot. But it's possible to imagine a brighter future for workers if Obama remains the populist that we saw so often on the campaign trail. The war of ideas is just beginning, and we are only now seeing the case being made that the bosses are not the makers - they are merely the owners. The real makers are the workers. And when workers are given a clear choice, as they were in this election, they choose the man who fights for them - and against their bosses.

Barack Obama delivering a statement about the economy. 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.

 

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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