What the President Should Have Said About J.T. Henderson -- and Other 'Real People'

Last night the President took a lofty, almost disinterested stance regarding budget deadlock in Congress. He seemed to chastise Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner equally, focusing on the consequences of a shutdown and ignoring the consequences of making a bad deal to avoid a shutdown.

A Federal shutdown would have "real consequences for real people," said the President, mentioning one "real" person by name: J.T. Henderson of Louisville, Kentucky.

So let's talk about J.T. Henderson - and about all the other J.T. Hendersons who are just as real, and just as important, as our friend in Louisville. You'd be surprised how many there are.

Meet the Hendersons

Who wasn't the President talking about when he mentioned the name "J.T. Henderson" last night?

He wasn't referring to J.T. Henderson, Georgia's Commissioner of Agriculture in the 1800's. Commissioner Henderson did groundbreaking work (no pun intended) on the development of government resources that help farmers and therefore boost the entire economy. His achievements include the expansion of his department of agriculture and the creation of one of the earliest weather services.

The Republicans want to cut funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and for weather services too. That would leave state institutions like those created by the late Mr. Henderson in a severe financial bind.

Nor was the President referring to the late Reverend J.T. Henderson, a Methodist minister in Norman, Oklahoma who died over 100 years ago. Rev. Henderson's church is still going strong there in Norman. The National Weather Service issued a "red flag alert" in Norman today, which will help the people prevent costly and life-threatening wildfires. The EPA's helping to investigate possible contamination of the city's drinking water.

The Republicans want to cut funding for the National Weather Service and the EPA.

The President wasn't quoting J.T. Henderson, a church saxophonist in Baltimore, Maryland. That J.T. Henderson played in the band at a public university and almost certainly in his high school band, too. High school music programs have already been cut back dramatically, and face even more severe cuts if Federal education funding is reduced in the ways that have been proposed.

Public universities are likely to struggle, too, as states are forced to replace lost Federal funding and fewer students are able to obtain Pell Grants.

Nor was the President referring to the J.T. Henderson who plays football at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. When public universities lose funding, sports programs face cutbacks too.

And the President wasn't referring to J.T. Henderson, a plumber in Nacogdoches, Texas. His shop's located at the spot where Farm-toMarket Road meets Guy Blount Road, not far from Spanish Bluff. I don't know if that J.T. has kids, but it's going to be tough to send them to college on a plumber's income without Pell grants. And the GOP budget slashes farm assistance programs, including those which help middle-class farmers, so Farm-to-Market Road may not be getting a lot of traffic. And that could hurt J.T.'s business.

I'm sure it was unintentional, but the President's choice of words left the impression that all of these J.T. Hendersons, each of whom could suffer from the wrong budget deal, aren't quite as "real" as the J.T. whose check would be delayed under a shutdown.

The man of the hour

Here's who the President was talking about: J.T. Henderson from Louisville, Kentucky. J.T. and his wife are waiting for the tax refund they'll get as the result of an adoption tax credit. "If I could speak directly to the President or the Congressional leadership," said J.T., "I would just tell them that their grandstanding has effects as it trickles down to normal, everyday Americans."

According to ABC's website, "Henderson works in development for a non-profit in Louisville, Ky., and his wife is a first-year pediatric resident at Kosair Children's Hospital. They have struggles with large bills from medical school loans, moving expenses and Tedi's adoption."

Said J.T.: "We live check to check."

That nonprofit organization where J.T. works is dedicated to reducing child abuse and neglect in the community, which is among the most noble of vocations. J.T. himself appears to be a good guy, with the background of a person who (in the words of my Southern Baptist relatives) is "right with the Lord" and has been steeped in the hardcore fire-and-brimstone gospel. I have the feeling that, whatever his politics or theology, he has a pure and kind heart.

But J.T. may not realize that this fight isn't just about "grandstanding." It's also about ensuring that student loans are available for his child, as they were for his wife. It's about ensuring that his wife and other physicians aren't confronted with the dilemma of either accepting little or no pay to care for the elderly or turning them away altogether.

Here's something else that might interest J.T.: Studies also show that child abuse and neglect are closely linked to poverty and income levels. Poverty has already surged in the past several years, and withdrawing support for low-income families is exactly what shouldn't be done if we want to reduce this scourge from our children.

Dear Mr. President

The President quoted J.T.'s remarks about "grandstanding" and its "effects as it trickles down to normal, everyday Americans." and added: "I could not have said it better myself."

With all due respect, Mr. President, I believe you could have said it better yourself. That's no criticism of J.T., who's reacting based on the information available to him. But you have more information than he does.

Mr. President, you could have said that there is a clear struggle here between those who would defend the middle class, and those who would defend the wealthy. You could have said that you respect the outcome of the 2010 election, but that you believe that respect is a two-way street and that the 2008 election deserves respect too. You could have said that threatening a government shutdown does violence to our political system by turning the collegial give-and-take of politics into a hostage negotiation.

Mr. President, you could have said that you came to Washington to change the tone, but not by being victimized by bullying attempts to bypass the political process, or by permitting lasting harm to people who aren't responsible for our current economic crisis. You could have also said that you had already agreed to the Republicans' figure - $33 billion in cuts - only to have them demand even more.

And respectfully, Mr. President, you could have avoided a locution which suggests, however unintentionally, that the middle-class families who wouldn't be able to purchase a home, afford health care (especially in their senior years), or send their kids to college aren't "real people." Or that the children who attend Head Start programs and the families that depend on food stamps aren't "real," either.

I'm sure you didn't mean that, Mr. President.

Dear J.T.

And a quick word to J.T. Henderson of Louisville, KY: Sorry you've had to go through this, but hang in there, buddy. These media firestorms end as quickly as they begin. This too shall pass.

Someday you'll tell your grandchildren that the President of the United States mentioned you on television, and that you were famous for a few days before life mercifully got back to normal.

They'll probably say "What was television, Grandpa?"

Let's just hope you're not forced to live with the grandkids so that you can pay your medical bills.

Our closing J.T.s

Here are few more J.T.'s that weren't mentioned by the President:

The President wasn't referring to J.T. Henderson from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He's a "discount realtor" who will sell your house for less than $500, and he specializes in "HUD homes" - foreclosed homes that were backed by an FHA loan, whose ownership has now reverted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The rapid rise in the number of "HUD homes" is another product of the financial crisis brought on by Wall Street deregulation. They're also trying to use the threat of a government shutdown to roll back the partial reforms enacted last year.

Nor was the President referring to the J.T. Henderson who says somewhere on the Internet, "Got so much money I should rob myself." The guys who really fit that description are on Wall Street, but they're not robbing themselves.

And the President wasn't referring to the J.T. Henderson who was a Scoutmaster in West Texas fifty years ago. That J.T. painted large nature murals on the tents of the Boy Scouts under his supervision, and they were apparently a big hit at the 1964 Boy Scout Jamboree. He's not relevant to the budget issue the way the other J.T.s are, but his murals were pretty cool.

All of these J.T. Hendersons have something in common with the man the President did mention last night - and with people on food stamps, students with Pell Grants, people with FHA loans, with you, and with me.

We're all real.


[1] To track the impact of budget and public policy debates, go to www.TheMiddleClass.org.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at "rjeskow@ourfuture.org."