fresh voices from the front lines of change







I watched President Obama’s “deficit speech” this morning. My wife was listening from another room. She does not follow politics as closely as you and I do. The only thing she heard was “Medicare cuts.” Why was Medicare in a speech about raising taxes on the rich? That makes the speech about Medicare, for most people.

The main proposals in the speech were very strong. Raise taxes on the rich. This is what the vast majority of the public wants done. This is by far the right policy. The deficit is the result of tax cuts for the rich, huge military increases and the financial collapse. The terrible economic inequality that is tearing apart the country is the result of low taxes on the rich. The predatory business models that are killing us are the result of low taxes. Raising taxes on the rich is the right thing to do for the country and the right thing to do politically.

C-SPAN On In Their Bedrooms

But the President and his staff live in the Washington bubble. People in Washington closely follow every nuance and policy detail of every bill. They go to bars and talk about whether Representative so-and-so will support the vote to table amendment to the referral act or if they will need a secondary consideration to the resolution of budgetary mechanism or need a suspension of threshold for enactment. Seriously, that’s what they do. That have C-SPAN on in their bedrooms. The trouble is they think other people do this, too.

So in anticipation of the speech the DC people were all talking about whether Medicare Part B Premium Surcharges would face an adjustment in the copayment mechanism per episode, and things like that. And in the White House they are said to be concerned with the “Grand Bargain” – the idea that they can make a deal that “fixes” the “deficit problem” so all the pundits at Time and The New York Times congratulate them on rising above politics and stop pandering to the voters and make them eat their peas by cutting back on the things We, the People do for each other so taxes at the top can be lowered and the “job creators” can get to work, etc. Or something.

People Hear What Affects THEM

But out in the real world the things people care about are very different. Out here people are trying to understand why it takes 3-4 hours of their wages to fill the gas tank in their 10-year-old Honda Accord, when there is no other way to get to work. They want to know why they have to do two people’s jobs now, and don’t ever get raises, and they used to get health care but now they have to pay and then there are the co-pays, etc. Never mind paying for child care. And the schools are cutting back. Food costs more. If you take a vacation they’ll replace you. If you have to take care of a sick kid they’ll fire you.

People have it hard right now. And they have it hard because of the changes in the economy that are causing the gains to go to a top few. A speech about raising taxes on the rich would be a speech about starting to change things back, so the country works for regular people again. But now I am afraid people will hear “Medicare cuts” instead. In a speech that was supposed to be about finally, finally, finally raising taxes on the rich, a lot of people will hear one thing and only one thing: “Medicare cuts.”

Republicans know this, that is why their 2010 campaign ads were all about “500 Billion In Cuts To Medicare.” Ad after ad after ad, and then they won. They understand that people are hurting, and count on Medicare and Social Security to help them when they are older.

Marketers understand that you can signal to people that something is “about them” and then they will tune in and pay attention. Out here in the real world things that mean you have to pay more are “about us.” So that is what makes people pay attention.

Over 50

People hear what affects them and few things matter more to people over about 50 than what Medicare will or won’t cover. Why do I say “over 50” when Medicare doesn’t kick in until you are 65? Because after 50 if you get laid off it is almost impossible to get another job and literally impossible to get health care, so you are in a game of holding out, waiting for Medicare and Social Security to kick in. By “people” I mean “people” measured by large numbers of actual people, not “people” measured by large numbers of dollars. It’s the people with large numbers of dollars that the media sees and writes about and talk about, because those are the people who are “like them.” But the real world is large numbers of people who don’t have a lot of money.

The White House is misjudging what people care about if they think voters want deficit reduction. As Dick Cheney famously said, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” People want to know that the President has a clear plan to fix the economy. They want a HUGE jobs program. They want it paid for by tax cuts on the rich. They don’t understand why anyone is talking about Medicare when Medicare and Social Security are the only things they have to look forward to.

I know the President was trying to acknowledge “political realities’ and the Republicans are going to block everything. I know he feels maybe they’ll stop obstructing if he offers things they want, in exchange for things he wants. Butin a speech signaling to the country that he is on their side he should stop acknowledging “political realities” that only exist in Washington and start tuning in to what regular people out here in the real world are experiencing.


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