Obama’s Message to Voters

The New York Times

The Opinion Pages

Joe the Plumber’s Imaginary Expectations

Updated September 29, 2010, 09:31 AM

Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University. She writes the column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor,” which appears monthly in The Nation.

During the 2008 presidential election, a man called “Joe the Plumber” took center stage for a few weeks. Joe encountered President Obama on a campaign stop and asked him how his proposed tax policies would affect a plumbing business he intended to buy, which he said would make $250,000 to $280,000 a year.

Joe found Obama’s answer unsatisfactory and his complaint went viral. “Joe the Plumber” became the strong-jawed mascot of the McCain-Palin campaign, emblematic of the ordinary guy, icon of the hardworking, overtaxed white middle class, struggling to maintain his business in the face of spendthrift liberals who throw dollars at lazy welfare cheats who are generally figured as people of color.

In fact, Joe’s real name was Samuel Wurzelbacher, and he was not a licensed plumber. He had no plumbing business, and was in no financial position to buy one. Aspirations aside, he was in debt and owed the state substantial back taxes.

In other words, the real Samuel Wurzelbacher was precisely the sort of citizen who would have benefited most from Obama’s proposed policies. Yet the distance between what “Joe” imagined his status to be and its reality says a great deal both about the inflated condition of the American dream, and the deflated reality of the American worker. Joe the Plumber, in other words, was a perfect cipher for the complications of class anxiety afflicting many Americans.

In dealing with the divisiveness of this moment, I think President Obama should address the degree to which careless housing speculation and the investment bubbles of the last decade represented not merely greed at the top of the ladder (as it surely did) but also an overly-fueled sense of ordinary-guy expectation that, alas, was rooted in the purely imaginary. Many of us will have to wake up from that dream and face the bitter disappointment that is the emotional cost of those colossal miscalculations.

In addition, this more-or-less legitimate sense of having been cheated has been exploited by unprecedented levels of demagoguery, confusion, and outright lying in our recent public discourse. This poisonous noise obscures the commonality (but for the richest two percent) of our predicament as citizens.

Our economic situation is part of a global downturn. Public access to the basic necessities of life — like education, transportation infrastructure, housing, clean water and jobs — ought to be an organizing feature of our policies for the future. This cannot happen through the tactics of trickle-down or dog-eat-dog — or through “connecting with the anger” of voters.

You can’t eat anger; and anger depletes mindfulness. The democracies that will survive on an increasingly exhausted planet will be those that ensure the fairest possible distribution of resources among their citizens. Thus, President Obama needs to preach the benefits of his programs to the real Samuel Wurzelbachers of the world, rather than refuting the “Mr. Moneybags Has Been Unfairly Taxed” narrative of an imagined Joe the Plumber.

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Filed under barack obama, elections, political commentary

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