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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.