Home Editorials Meme-Killer Meme Killer Episode 2: A Half-Charred Obama, the Debt Ceiling, and Detroit?

Meme Killer Episode 2: A Half-Charred Obama, the Debt Ceiling, and Detroit?


Did you hear the one about how President Obama killed Detroit by making contradictory statements about raising the debt ceiling? Oh, and he’s a Batman villain now. No, not the Joker, another one.


The new meme is definitely eye-catching. Here’s the leader of the free world, with the right side of his face and body looking more scorched earth than man — a reference to comic book foe Harvey Dent — “Two-Face.” Get it?

It contrasts two very different speeches. The first was delivered by Senator Obama in 2006, when the Illinois freshman voted against raising the debt ceiling. The second offers a much different view, as President Obama blasts Republican objections to doing the same thing in 2013.

Both quotes are correctly attributed to the president, albeit reduced to single sentences plucked from lengthy speeches. Obama did cast a vote against raising the debt ceiling in 2006. It wasn’t an “I’m-doing-the-right-thing” vote, it was an overtly political admonition of the Bush administration’s economic policies.

A rebuke of the disastrous Bush era economic policies was and is well-deserved. A vote against raising the debt limit was irresponsible, and not particularly savvy, in retrospect.

The debt ceiling represents our credit limit; the debt we’ve already accumulated. This is our current bar tab. We came so close to defaulting in 2011 that our credit rating was downgraded. Coming similarly close again, or launching ourselves over the precipice, and next thing we know, lexington law will be all over the news and the game will be over.

Part of the president’s 2006 speech, which the meme omits, described the intent behind his protest vote. It wasn’t about raising the ceiling, it was about the debt itself, and the mess it creates:

This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and states of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports, and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on. Every dollar we pay in interest is a dollar that is not going to investment in America’s priorities. Instead, interest payments are a significant tax on all Americans—a debt tax that Washington doesn’t want to talk about.

Obama addressed the gradual erosion that occurs as a result of bad economic policies. His choice to use the debt ceiling as a prop was a large bowl of stupid. Senator Obama played the same role in 2006 as Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul play today: the guy wanting to tell his constituents that he’s fighting for you. So, he’s going to vote to default on the national debt on your behalf. Cheers!

In reality, the debt ceiling is the last symptom to present itself in a long chain of fail.

In a press conference last Wednesday, July 24, Governor Rick Snyder (R-Michigan) echoed President Obama, circa 2006, assessing the erosion in Detroit. He said the bankruptcy was the result of “60 years of decline.”

University of Pennsylvania history professor Thomas Sugrue agreed, telling Associated Press writer Sharon Cohen: “It’s been 60-plus years of steady disinvestment, depopulation and an intensive hostility between the city, the suburbs and the rest of the state.”

Cohen’s article offered a timeline, as detailed by Kevin Boyle, a history professor at Northwestern University:

Detroit’s first wave of prosperity came after World War I and lasted into the early 1920s, driven by the rise of the auto industry. “It was the Silicon Valley of America,” Boyle said. “It was home to the most innovative, cutting-edge dominant industry in the world. The money there at that point was just staggering.”

More affluence followed in the late 1940s and early 1950s as the auto industry was booming. Tens of thousands of blacks migrated from the South seeking jobs on the assembly line and a foothold in the middle class. In 1950, Detroit’s population peaked as a metropolis of more than 1.8 million, making it the nation’s fifth-largest city. The transformation was dramatic.

Throughout the mid-to-late twentieth century, Detroit’s auto industry and general population expanded outwards into Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties: the ‘Burbs. Some pursued life outside the city for the two-car garage and white picket fence. Others were more concerned about the “white” part, as the African-American population increased twenty fold. Many left Michigan entirely, more continue to do so today.

The exodus had a debilitating effect: less funding for city government. The shift in population from the city into the suburbs and beyond left spread out neighborhoods, higher costs to combat medical emergencies, fires, crime – all of which began to sky-rocket.

About the same time the city started outgrowing its income, the industry providing the brunt of that income made poor life choices. Detroit’s death spiral had begun. Per the Guardian:

[The] major shareholders in General Motors, Ford,Chrysler, etc, and the boards of directors they selected – made many disastrous decisions. They failed in competition with European and Japanese automobile capitalists and so lost market share to them. They responded too slowly and inadequately to the need to develop new fuel-saving technologies. And, perhaps most tellingly, they responded to their own failures by deciding to move production out of Detroit so they could pay other workers lower wages.

Unemployment. Lack of education. Lack of opportunity. Gentrification. So, naturally, we spent a bunch of money fighting the drug war – ignoring that poverty was the bigger impediment to social mobility.

Detroit has been in decline for over a half century. The Motor City has been enduring an intensifying feedback loop of deterioration and increasing poverty, creating more debt, like violent waves crashing against a cliff face.

For over 60 years.

Simply saying “Detroit went bankrupt because of debt” is a criminal reduction. It’s like saying the Titanic sunk because of water. When one spots a gigantic iceberg, it helps to, in turn, do something.

And talking about the history behind Detroit’s decline, President Obama’s name generally doesn’t come up. He became President 16 years after Moody’s first downgraded Detroit’s credit ratings to junk status. The president was three years old when the Packard Auto Plant closed its doors, opening the floodgates of the industry’s exit.

Let’s be real about this meme. This is Obama hate-porn. The message doesn’t matter (apparently, the Batman villain doesn’t either). It’s about finding anything passable as a nugget of truth to enable a picture debasing the president.

Memes like this exemplify a proclivity of some to assign a city, a political ideology, or an economic status a skin tone. If you found the imagery chuckle-worthy — my apologies — you scored seven out of ten Paula Deans on the unintentional racism scale. You should reflect on that. Hopefully a little longer than it took you to click share, making your facebook friends feel uncomfortable.

John Aronno is a co-founder, managing editor, and award winning political writer at Alaska Commons. Aronno has had his work featured in the Huffington Post, the Anchorage Press, the Alaska Dispatch, and the Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state’s top reporters on the Washington Post’s “The Fix.” He writes the weekly column “On Politics” for Alaska Commons. Aronno lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife, Heather Aronno, and a lot of pets.


  1. Nothing about the contextual reference to the 2006 speech nullifies the contradiction between Obama’s words then and now. If anything, the full content validates the meme. The two speeches, even slipped from larger passages, are still contradictory. And, racist? C’mon, that’s a cop-out. There is nothing racist about calling an elected leader out on his failed policies, contradictions, and untruths. The racism accusations from the left, when there’s no other rightful defense is getting really old. It’s played out and serves no purpose other than to further divide an already torn country!

What do you think?