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As president, Obama lost his voice – but Al Green helped him get it back

Beneath his cool veneer the US President is at last perceived as being sympathetic.

Until recently, even the most ardent Democrats have found it hard to offer their wholehearted support to Barack Obama. They may be grateful for the achievements of his first three years – the rescue of the financial system and the Keynesian stimulus, ending the war in Iraq, passing universal health care – but they found him chilly, out of reach, oblivious to their everyday concerns. This remoteness sat oddly with the US’s first African-American president, a self-evidently “cool” rock star of a character who had taken his party by storm in his long campaign for the nomination against Hillary Clinton.

Even Obama recognised this shortcoming. “I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are,” he confessed, acknowledging that he left voters with a “feeling of remoteness and detachment”. Like so many politicians with an image problem, he blamed the press.

“I don’t go to a lot of Washington parties and, as a consequence, the Washington press corps maybe just doesn’t feel like I’m in the mix enough with them, and they figure, well, if I’m not spending time with them, I must be cold and aloof,” he said.

It was not just those who voted for him who expressed their sense of isolation. His Republican opponents were quick to paint him as an elitist, a Harvard law professor who had little understanding of ordinary folk. They cited his private remarks to an ultra-liberal San Francisco audience in 2008, recorded on a mobile phone and instantly broadcast, that many Midwesterners in the American heartland “cling to guns or religion . . . as a way to explain their frustrations”.

Finding his voice

A critical difference between Obama the candidate and Obama the president has been his strange inability to communicate. He is an orator not a confider. He can preach to a vast sports stadium, as he did on his way to the White House but, unlike master communicators such as Franklin Roosevelt with his fireside chats, or Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who appeared to appeal one-on-one in their brilliant television addresses, Obama was not able to resize his big battalion speeches for the small screen.

Yet suddenly Obama has found his voice. Arriving late at a fundraiser at the Apollo, Harlem, in January, he discovered he had missed a set played by the soul legend Al Green. Expressing his regret, he paused, gave a broad smile and, without warning, sang, “Ah-h-h-hm . . . so in love with you,” the lilting opening phrase of the Green love song “Let’s Stay Together”. It was a revelation and an epiphany. He could not only sing, he showed he could be warm and soulful, too.

Obama sweetly singing a snatch of Al Green instantly went viral. Dozens of iterations of his impromptu a cappella riff logged millions of hits on YouTube. His “Ah-h-h-hm . . . so in love with you” became a popular mobile ringtone. The president gained even more credit when he revealed in Rolling Stone that, by singing, he had defied his closest political adviser, the steely Valerie Jarrett, who expressly forbade him to sully the dignity of his office by crooning in public.

Now, without exploiting the incident too obviously, the White House has been letting slip other musical titbits about Obama that confirms that he is, indeed, the coolest president ever to inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When Mick Jagger rehearsed before a performance in the White House ballroom in February, Obama chilled with him for 45 minutes. When Paul McCartney sang “Michelle” to Michelle, Obama was so moved he teared up. Other musical legends he has had perform for him are Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock.

When Bob Dylan refused to rehearse at the White House two years ago, merely shook Obama by the hand, declined to have his picture taken with the president, and then left abruptly after singing, according to Obama, “a beautiful rendition” of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’”, the president was delighted. “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right?” he said. “You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little sceptical about the whole enterprise,” Obama told Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone proprietor, in April.

The 2,000 songs on Obama’s iPod include Stevie Wonder, Dylan, the Stones, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jay-Z, Nas, Lil Wayne, “a lot of R’n’B” and “a lot of classical music”. “I’m not a big opera buff in terms of going to the opera,” Obama told Wenner, “but there are days where Maria Callas is exactly what I need.” From Coltrane to Callas. Chilling with Mick. Dissed by Dylan. How cool is that?

Man eat dog

Then this month, when Obama did stand-up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he showed himself not only to be a master of comic timing, but engagingly self-deprecating and self-knowing. Referring to the revelation in his memoir that, as a child in Indonesia, he had once eaten dog flesh, he tilted at Sarah Palin: “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” he quipped. “A pit bull is delicious!” Then he continued, with a broad smile, “My stepfather always told me, it’s a boy-eat-dog world out there.”

He didn’t back off being political but was funny about it. “Some have said I blame too many problems on my predecessor,” he said. “But let’s not forget that’s a practice that was initiated by George W Bush.” He even acknowledged that his universal health-care plans could be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. “In my first term we passed health-care reform. In my second term I guess I’ll pass it again,” he joked.

Since his Al Green moment, Democrats are coming back to Obama, not only because – to paraphrase R A Butler on Anthony Eden – he is the best president they have got, but because they now feel comfortable with him. Beneath his cool veneer he is at last perceived as being sympathetic, a person of substance with warm blood coursing through his veins. And that is something it’s hard to say about his opponent, the robotic Mitt Romney.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£18.99)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

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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.