I went to the White House this week, for the first and likely last time. Here is what I saw.
I was invited there to participate in the “Worker Voice Summit,” a daylong event focusing on labor, unions, and the plight of the American working class, an event which constituted a bone thrown by the Obama administration to organized labor. Labor has politically supported Obama in a major way, but the macro-level problems afflicting workers—economic inequality, the decline of labor unions, and the general ongoing triumph of capital over labor—have proven to be too sturdy for Obama to do much except nibble around the edges. The Kenyan socialist has somehow failed to implement full socialism in America, giving rise to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead, we get a daylong summit.
Which is not to be snide. A White House summit is a deceptively enormous undertaking with, at the very least, the potential to draw a lot of attention to issues that tend to get overshadowed by Justin Bieber’s dick, such as “the death of the middle class.” I was invited as a representative of Gawker Media’s union. Our unionization got a lot of publicity, even though it was relatively small in the context of the entire labor movement, both because a young, online media company organizing constituted something of a novelty, and because the labor movement is desperate for any positive signs of growth in new areas. I asked if some other people from our union could come as well; the answer (paraphrased) was “no.” I considered refusing this invitation out of some sense of journalistic duty not to participate in a partisan political event. But I concluded that since I spend most of my time writing screeds agreeing with all of the issues that were going to be advocated at this thing, I might as well go. Refusing to publicly endorse issues that you have already publicly endorsed in order to pretend to stand apart from the electoral political system seemed a bit too precious. Also, I enjoy being mercilessly teased by my coworkers.
Getting into the White House involves zigzagging lines and abundant security presence, like getting on Space Mountain if it was located in an airport. Everything was clean. Not as clean as a Vegas casino, but very clean. In the reception area, a military man in full dress uniform played the grand piano underneath a large portrait of Bill Clinton. In the wood-paneled hallways, a few cell phones were plugged into sockets, resting on the floor. Just like your house. We all filed into the East room, where ushers with gold ropes on their uniforms directed us to gold-colored molded plastic chairs surrounding a stage back by gold drapes. Just like your house.
It was all a very big production, a long time in the making. “We feel like we’re ready to give birth!” said Valerie Jarrett, the adviser who helped orchestrate the event. “This is longer than most pregnancies!” The Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, moderated panel about—yes—labor issues, including everyone from CEOs to Robert Hathorn, a Mississippi auto worker who had been stuck in a “perma-temp” situation and then, as a final indignity, forced to train his own full time replacement.
LABOR SECRETARY: “What was going through your head when you were forced to train that full-time worker.”
AUTO WORKER: “I said: wow.”
LABOR SECRETARY: “Um... great.”
After an extended delay, we were joined by Barack Obama. (Judging by the Wednesday news, during the delay he was either dealing with a Russian missile attack in Syria, or apologizing to Doctors Without Borders for blowing up a hospital. Then he had to come downstairs and smile for us. Being president is a bizarre and inhuman job.) Since I was sitting off to the side of the stage, I could see the Teleprompter and compare it to what he actually said. His ratio seemed to be about one sentence off the prompter to four off the top of his head. The Teleprompter would say, “That’s progress.” Obama would say, “So, we made progress. From a time when the American economy was flat on its back...” and launch into a tale of national redemption. People of all political persuasions can at least agree that we’ve had seven strong years of a president capable of speaking extemporaneously in coherent paragraphs, in contrast to certain times in our recent past.
Obama was introduced by Terrence Wise, a Kansas City fast food worker who’s emerged as a leader in the “Fight For $15” movement. Wise’s mother, also a fast food worker, was in the audience. She got a compliment from the president, who also pointed out that she and Terrence lived far apart and, due to poverty, had not been able to see each other for ten years before that day. I spoke to her later over boxed lunches. “I had three good things happen,” she said. “I rode on a plane for the first time. I got to see my son. And I got to meet the president.” She had the best story of anyone at the White House that day.
After Obama’s speech, we all scattered down a sidewalk to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for various panel discussions. I took one step on the nicely cut grass beside the sidewalk and was immediately reprimanded by a Secret Service agent: “Stay on the path, sir.” My panel, held in an auditorium with the precise size and layout of those found in small elementary schools, was “Millennials Finding Their Voice.” I am not, technically speaking, a millennial—another Obama administration scandal. Following our panel, the most popular man in the DC metro area, “Diamond” Joe Biden, came in to address everyone. Biden leaned on the podium like a maitre’d, and spoke in the leisurely manner of a reminiscing retiree with nowhere to be and a captive audience. He spoke about the declining middle class and the value of unions and the fundamental unfairness of CEO pay with the effortlessness of someone who has been speaking of these very same things for many decades to many pro-labor crowds. Everything was running very late by this point. Biden noted when he came out that he didn’t have much time. Then he started talking. Every few minutes he’d say, “I have to let you go or I’ll get in trouble.” Then he would plunge back into his languid stream of consciousness for another long stretch. Everyone in the room was supposed to be back across the street to hear the president again at 4 p.m. At 4:08 Biden said “Final thought, fellas.” He wrapped up around 4:15. His final line was that if he didn’t let us go, he’d get “demoted to Secretary of State—that’s a joke.”
At last, we all filed back for a “Town Hall” with the president, who sat on stage with a moderator and took questions about labor issues from people on the internet and from a few audience members, inspiring jealousy from all those sitting around them. While he was being introduced, Obama stood up, took off his suit jacket, and rolled up the cuffs of his sleeves with long, elegant fingers. At times he would cast his eyes down while cracking a joke, as if he was in a private conversation with himself. Barack Obama possesses the casual elegance and grace that luxury clothing makers try to capture in black-and-white advertisements. It is no wonder that many of us feel that he hasn’t lived up to our grand expectations. No political career’s cold realities are as seductive as expectations formed on the basis of someone’s personal magnetism. George Clooney would probably be a disappointment as president, too.
A daylong summit at the White House. The leaders of all the most powerful unions in America in one room. Congressional leaders, the president and vice president, and the heads of influential NGOs. All of us, together, agreeing on practically everything. Everyone, from Obama on down, said that economic inequality is too large, and the CEO-worker pay ratio is out of control, and corporate America must improve how it treats its workers, and government must work to strengthen the middle class, and the minimum wage should be raised, and organizing rights must be protected, and unions must get stronger, and capitalism itself must rethink the labor-capital arrangement that has grown so one-sided over the past few decades if capitalism is going to thrive and be legitimate. The problems are obvious, and so are many of the solutions. We all agreed. Even the President of the United States.
And that, in the end, was the disheartening part. A summit at the White House is not legislation. This summit at the White House, in fact, was an implicit acknowledgement that the Obama administration does not currently possess the requisite political power to pass the sort of meaningful progressive legislation that might actually start to change some of the dynamics that we were all there to decry. There was talk from the stage of encouraging better “workplace culture,” which is very different from saying that the government plans to make companies improve, using laws. If Barack Obama was capable of muscling through the sort of laws that the labor movement—and Barack Obama—would like to see enacted, he would not have to give labor leaders a summit. He could give them political victories. But that does not seem to be the reality of the moment. So we all got invited to the White House instead, to talk about “outreach strategies” and to “#StartTheConvo” on labor issues. I did not get the impression that the conversation needed more starting. We all seemed pretty well decided on what we wanted. Left unspoken was the fact that the working class will not be getting what it wants, any time soon.
The labor movement looked to Barack Obama to bring about salvation. Barack Obama looked back at them. “This is not a situation where you had a nice time, you took some pictures, and then six months from now you’re like, ‘what did Obama do?’” he said at the end of the day. Everyone is now supposed to go forth into the world and... change it. Not even the White House is powerful enough to make those American middle class dreams come true. No savior will be coming down from Washington to win the class war. So we have to win it ourselves.