Robert Johnson's Political Cold War


On yesterday’s edition of Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace talked with two prominent CEOs about the business community’s increasingly pointed criticism of President Obama’s policies.  The two executives appearing on the show were FedEx CEO Fred Smith, and Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. 


Johnson was never a big Obama supporter – he threw his weight behind Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, going so far as to proclaim himself “frankly insulted” that Obama would dare to criticize the Clintons’ efforts on behalf of the black community.  During that January 2008 campaign appearance on Hillary Clinton’s behalf, Johnson also dismissed Obama as “doing ‘something’ in the neighborhood” while the Clintons were working hard to demonstrate they were “deeply and emotionally involved in black issues.”  At the time, some observers thought Johnson’s sneering reference to “something” was a shot at Obama’s history of drug use, although he clarified that he was talking about “community organizing.”

It is nevertheless significant to hear someone of Johnson’s stature in the black community offer potent criticism, not just of Obama’s performance as President, but of the class warfare that drives his entire re-election campaign.

Johnson views the current situation as a “political cold war,” in which Republicans are intransigent about tax increases, while Democrats are equally unwilling to discuss entitlements.  Responding to Obama’s controversial statement that America had “gotten soft” before he arrived in the White House, Johnson said:

Chris, American business has not gotten soft. American business is filled with innovators and investors and entrepreneurs who want to grow the economy and put people to work. The problem is, I think between both the House and the White House, we have a political cold war. It is sort of the old Russian way of negotiating what is mine is mine and what is yours, we’ll talk about.

So we’ve got the Republicans saying taxes are mine, but we’ll talk about your entitlements. And the Democrats are saying entitlements are ours and we’ll talk about your taxes. The end result is a political freeze setting over the economy and impacting our ability to compete globally.

Nothing terribly exciting there – it’s just a variation on the hoary old “gridlock” complaint that comes up whenever liberals are frustrated in their endless quest to spend money, and begin whining that Washington is a hopeless lump of mindless partisan fat clogging the arteries of progress.  What he’s saying here isn’t really so different from Obama’s rhetoric during the debt ceiling showdown, when the Democrats portrayed Republican refusal to acquiesce in huge tax increases as the sole stumbling block to meaningful government reform. 

Johnson’s graciously allowing that the Democrats’ refusal to consider significant reform of our dying entitlement programs might be a roughly equal stumbling block to “progress.”  As if the problems facing us were caused by an insufficiently active government!

After listening to FedEx CEO Fred Smith discuss how China might just be a less hostile environment for capitalism than Obama’s America at the moment, Johnson said that the President needs to “recalibrate” his class warfare re-election message:

You don’t get people to like you by attacking them or demeaning their success. You know, I grew up in a family of 10 kids, first one to go to college, and I’ve earned my success. I’ve earned my right to fly private if I choose to do so.

And by attacking me it is not going to convince me that I should take a bigger hit because I happen to be wealthy. You know, it is the old — I think Ted and Fred and I we both sort of take the old Ethel Merman approach to life. I’ve tried poor and I tried rich and I like rich better. It doesn’t mean that I am a bad guy.

I didn’t go in to business to create a public policy success for either party, Republican or Democrat. I went in business to create jobs and opportunity, create opportunity, create value for myself and my investors. And that’s what the president should be praising, not demagoguing us simply because Warren Buffet says he pays more than his secretary. He should pay the secretary more and she will pay more.

There’s no way for Obama to “recalibrate” his message as Johnson suggests, because the ugly green-eyed monster lurking at the heart of the Obama 2012 campaign is driving the whole enterprise.  Johnson isn’t just offering a little advice to tone down the rhetoric – he’s committing heresy. 

Entrepreneurs are not supposed to be celebrated for their success.  Business owners are not supposed to see themselves as creators of value for their investors.  Implying that wealthy people invest their money in ventures that produce more societal benefit than Obama’s cobwebbed Big Government programs is outrageous. 

“I’ve tried poor, and I tried rich, and I like rich better?”  People who are already rich aren’t supposed to talk like that, unless they’re high government officials leading taxpayer-financed lives of luxury!

And talking a shot at Obama’s tedious ritual invocation of Warren Buffett, the billionaire who spends all day crying for tax increases?  Why, that just isn’t done.  Saint Warren of the Overtaxed Secretary is meant to be an object of devotion, not careful analysis!

Johnson professed himself a fan of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which Obama charged with developing tough measures for deficit reduction, and then resolutely ignored.  Once again, this provides far too much ideological cover for economy-killing tax increases, when the pro-growth reforms America really needs will involve dramatic tax and spending cuts.  I wish the “balanced approach” crowd would at least insist on seeing the spending cuts first.

Johnson was also mistaken in advising Obama to “figure out a way to bring everybody together so they decide that he is the best the CEO to keep the job.”  That’s exactly how Americans should not think of the President.  He’s meant to be the chief executive of a small and disciplined government, using limited resources to defend American liberty.  The office was most certainly not meant to be Chairman of the Board for America, Incorporated.  In a free and prosperous nation, that job is left to a million individual entrepreneurs like Robert Johnson, who rise and fall on their own vision and merit.  Collectivism does not become more effective when it puts on a power tie. 



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