At last night's debate, John McCain unveiled a new line of attack against Barack Obama, the "Joe the Plumber" offensive. The plumber in question is Joe Wurzelbacher, a resident of Holland, Ohio who posed a question to Obama on the campaign trail this Sunday. Joe was concerned that under Obama's tax plan, a business he plans to purchase that has revenues of $250,000-280,000 dollars would have its taxes raised. The entire exchange was caught on camera, Obama goes through the specifics of his tax plan with Joe in rather extensive detail. In the end he suggests that, with capital gains cuts and other small-business incentives built into Obama's plan, Joe may actually see his taxes cut, though he could not guarantee that without looking at the particulars of Joe's business.
All of this might have been less than a footnote to history, except that Obama uttered three words which are a lightning rod of American political discourse: "spread the wealth." A cursory survey of the blogosphere and pennings of the commentariat reveals that these remarks of Obama's will be among the most misquoted in the annals of American politics. Republicans will hammer away at these three words to craft them into a singular message: "Obama wants to take your hard-earned money away and give it to other people."
This kind of rhetoric is always good for stirring up partisan anger. It bears no relation to what actually passed between Obama and Joe Wurzelbacher on the campaign trail in Ohio, however. Obama never told Joe that he wanted to "spread his wealth around." If you watch the video and listen carefully to the exchange, the context in which the three dread words are uttered is this:
OBAMA: My attitude is, if the economy is good for folks from the bottom up, it's going to be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're going to be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who are going to pay to hire you. Right now the economy is so pinched that business is bad for everybody, and I believe that when we spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.
So there you have it. Obama is not talking about taking Joe's money away and giving it to those in need, he is talking about spreading purchasing power to a broader segment of the economy so that service providers like Joe will have an expanded revenue base. This makes good economic sense, and is about as "socialist" as a BLT with cheese is kosher.
Mr. Wurzelbacher has evidently, in subsequent interviews, decried Obama's ideas as socialist and detrimental to the American dream (though, it is interesting to note, as of this writing he has yet to endorse John McCain). Joe is an appealing and likable figure, and it would not surprise me if this fifteen minutes of fame translates into a career move from plumbing to politics. I think that John McCain's attempt to use Joe as a political icon will ultimately backfire, however.
Some people, like Joe himself, will watch his encounter with Obama and come away with the impression of insidious socialism. My guess is, however, that if the video of Obama's conversation with Joe Wurzelbacher gets the airplay it should, it will reinforce the positive impressions that the electorate has been building about Obama himself. Here is a man who, as of Sunday, had been on the campaign trail for a grueling two years, enduring constant attacks to his judgment and character. Confronted with a direct and challenging question about his policy he was not irritated or dismissive, but candid, earnest, and respectful. He addresses Joe's concerns with rigorous detail and minimum rhetoric, every inch the statesman who is sensible of his personal accountability to the voter. If that is not the kind of person we should have as our president, I do not know who is.