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Obama boxed Republicans in corner: $40 means a heck of a lot

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The White House launched a messaging drive this week that $40 dollars a week buys a heck of a lot for a lot of people--and that's what is at stake for a lot of wage earners if the Social Security payroll tax cut was not extended. A small break adds up, that's the message of "Seven and a Half Cents" from the musical "Pajama Game." That's Doris Day (above) in the 1957 movie version. Lyrics below.

WASHINGTON -- President Obama, bothered by comparisons to Star Trek's unemotional Mr. Spock, pushed back on that narrative -- as he scored a win Thursday over Republicans who botched handling one of their core issues -- tax breaks.

Obama told ABC News' Barbara Walters -- in an interview to be broadcast on Friday's "20/20" show -- that the biggest misconception about him is that he is "detached, or Spock-like, or very analytical."

"People who know me know that I am a softie. I mean, stuff can choke me up very easily. The challenge for me is that in this job I think a lot of times the press or how you come off on TV people want you to be very demonstrative in your emotions. And if you're not sort of showing it in a very theatrical way, then somehow it doesn't translate over the screen," Obama said in the interview taped Dec. 15.

So it was something to see Obama lose his Spock on Thursday as he vented at a White House event whipped up to pressure House Republicans over the Social Security payroll tax cuts, due to expire Dec. 31. A few hours later, there was a deal.

Obama wanted House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to persuade his hard-line GOP colleagues to go along with a Senate stopgap measure to extend the Social Security payroll tax cut another two months. This latest episode of Washington gridlock was remarkable because Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were in rare agreement.

Said a frustrated, unusually emotive Obama, "This is an issue where an overwhelming number of people in both parties agree. How can we not get that done? I mean, has this place become so dysfunctional that even when people agree to things we can't do it? It doesn't make any sense."

The Senate on Saturday -- in an 89-10 bipartisan roll call -- passed a compromise bill to extend payroll tax breaks and unemployment benefits and advance the controversial Canada/U.S. Keystone pipeline.

(Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) voted yes on extending the tax break. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) voted no.)

The problem was getting the House Republicans to go along. The White House cranked up a publicity and messaging campaign coordinated with the Democratic National Committee and Democratic lawmakers.

Anyone who receives a paycheck got a break in 2011 by paying less Social Security tax. For someone who earns $106,000, the cut was worth about $2,000; for a $50,000 earner, about $1,000.

In order to make the argument more populist, the White House calculated that the break was worth $40 "for a typical American family." And in doing what they do best, the White House collected stories from thousands of people these past days about what $40 meant to them.

The what-does-$40-buy gambit was evocative of lyrics in a famous song from the 1950s Broadway musical "The Pajama Game," where workers in a pajama factory were seeking a 7.5-cents-an-hour raise:

I figured it out

With a pencil and a pad I figured it out!

Seven and a half cents doesn't buy a hell of a lot,

Seven and a half cents doesn't mean a thing!

But give it to me every hour,

Forty hours every week,

And that's enough for me to be living like a king!

I figured it out

Backed in a corner, the House Republicans finally figured it out.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on December 23, 2011 9:08 AM.

Illinois finally wins "Race to the Top" grant: Biggert react was the previous entry in this blog.

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