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Obama's Divisive Talk Not Good for Anyone

December 21, 2009

Barack Obama's steady decline in the polls recently may mean the American people are tired of the president's divisive campaign rhetoric after nearly a year into his administration. The Rasmussen Report's daily tracking poll shows 53 percent of Americans disapprove of his performance in office.

With an economy shaking, unemployment rising, and two wars draining our nation's human and financial resources, Mr. Obama prefers to use the divisive language of the campaign trail in hopes of gaining public and political support for economic policies rather than to provide the leadership his supporters sorely hoped he possessed. He demonstrated this us-versus-them style during his interview on CBS's 60 Minutes this past Sunday when he used the term "fat cats" to describe banking executives in line for rather substantial, and contractual, year-end bonuses.

As a victim of the tanking economy, one would think I would be the first to shake my fist at another's paycheck and bonus. I worked for the last ten years for a state university system, the last two years assigned to a division that receives the bulk of its funding from investments. University administrators instituted a series of reductions in force that eliminated my position, which effectively put me on the streets at the start of the Christmas season with salary and benefits to expire in a few weeks. Administrators cited my salary as the reason for their decision. My experience, institutional memory, and contributions to the university had no value to the administration.

Ken Feinberg is the Obama Administration's special master for executive compensation. He distributed $200 million to Vietnam vets suffering from Agent Orange, and most recently he administered the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund by putting a price tag on the lives of those who died.

"Dollars are a surrogate for worth," he told Time Magazine. "When you start talking about dollars, what people hear is a ruling on their overall integrity and value to society. It gets difficult." Indeed, especially if value to society is a key factor in compensation calculations.

The people who collect your trash every week don't make enough money to take European vacations, but their value to society rises rather rapidly when they don't pick up the trash for several weeks.

How much value do you give a person who operates on your heart or cuts into your brain? Just before you go under the knife, ask if your surgeon makes $40 million an hour. That was the pay rate for Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in his welterweight title defense two years ago. His take was $20 million for a 10-round fight.

Tiger Woods, whose value to society is free-falling these days, made $110 million just from selling his name last year. And Ricky Gervais, creator of "The Office" franchise, gets $50,000 every time the U.S. version of the show airs.

Mack Brown, head coach of the University of Texas football team, will get $5 million next year. Someone asked me if that was fair. He should be paid what the market allows, I answered. The UT football program is one of the few in the nation that pays for itself. It provides incalculable public relations and marketing for which UT doesn't shell out a dime. In fact, UT gets paid every time they're on television. And what's the value of three hours of national television exposure?

Thanks to changes in federal compensation guidelines, approved by Congress, the number of federal employees earning more than $100,000 annually increased from 14 percent to 19 percent during the first 18 months of the recession, according to a USA Today study of the federal salary data base. And that's before overtime and bonuses (by the way, I've never figured out why public employees get bonuses for doing the public's work).

And speaking of bonuses, the president forgot his Wall Street executives kept their bonuses when they joined the administration in January. The Wall Street Journal reported in March that the White House merely "encouraged" them to "review" their compensation packages. A Citigroup executive took his bonus, but donated it to charity and, one assumes, wrote off the contribution.

Watching the president Sunday brought to mind Winston Churchill as he prepared his country for the possible German invasion of the island after the fall of France. "The massacre on both sides would have been grim and great," he noted in his memoirs. "I intended to use the slogan, 'You can always take one with you,'" he wrote. He realized, though, the British people needed strong, positive rhetoric, and leadership, and not cheap slogans and weak performances from His Majesty's government.

Barack Obama is not a Winston Churchill, but current and coming battles demand more than empty and divisive rhetoric from the chief executive.

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Copyright ©2009 John David Powell

John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from Shadey Hill Ranch in Texas. His email address is johndavidpowell@yahoo.com.