The problem with Obama's visit to Amazon

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Adrienne Thompson, tours the Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga, Tenn., Tuesday, July 30, 2013. Obama came to Chattanooga to give the first in a series of policy speeches on his proposals for private sector job growth and to strengthen the manufacturing sector. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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President Barack Obama, accompanied by Adrienne Thompson, tours the Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga, …

It seems like only yesterday that The New York Times was marveling at Amazon.com’s transformation into “an engine for jobs:” Having increased its workforce by 40% in a year, it now employs 97,000 people, and announced plans to add 5,000 more at its network of U.S. fulfillment centers.

Actually, it was the day before yesterday. But it sure sounded sensible, all those hours ago, for President Obama to choose one of those centers, in Chattanooga, TN, as the setting for a speech about jobs: In Amazon we have a powerful technology brand that’s hiring Americans like crazy — a great 21st Century political ally, right?

Not so much, it turns out. A chorus of critics, mostly liberal-leaning, have been spending the day of Obama’s actual speech arguing that Amazon is an engine for terrible jobs that have no relevance to strengthening the middle class. (“Why In The World Is Obama Going to an Amazon Warehouse?” scolds The New Republic.)

Meanwhile, what seems like the entirety of a particular category of small business — indie book stores — has been howling for years that Amazon has in effect been a destroyer of jobs by wiping out many of their shops. (“Does President Obama Hate Indie Bookstores?” asks Publishers Weekly.)

“In many ways, this is an Amazon-driven economy,” writes Alliance for American Manufacturers president Scott Paul on The Huffington Post, bringing things full circle. “Want a new TV? Click here and it can arrive at your doorstep in a day. Just charge it to your card. But would you like a good job? Wait in line.” Finally, Salon tries to close the deal by officially nominating Amazon for the role of Official Corporate Whipping Boy, declaring: “Amazon Is Worse Than Wal-Mart.”

And actually, what’s more interesting than the political “optics” here is actually how this plays out for Amazon. The complaints of indie bookstores and their fans are extremely old news by now, but (as Paul actually suggests) most people think of the company as cheap and convenient, and not a big, mean, bad corporate actor. Salon may have branded Amazon as more odious than Wal-Mart, but it’s not at all clear that consumers have.

(And while we're talking political optics: President Barack Obama cannot enjoy what seemed like a slam dunk photo op at a job-creating American company being turned into a debate about Amazon's value.)

Thanks to today’s backlash, a harrowing 2012 Mother Jones report about “wage slave” warehouse work is getting a lot of new exposure: Practically every critic is linking to it, though not all are acknowledging that Mac McLelland’s (excellent) story does not actually name Amazon or any other company. Other past (and actually Amazon-specific) exposés and lawsuits are getting a fresh look, too.

Of course the American attention span is fleeting, and Amazon’s cheap-and-convenient strategy is popular for a reason, so who knows whether this abrupt recasting of the company in the role of economic heavy will stick. But you have to wonder whether the firm is having any second thoughts about what must have, just days ago, seemed like an awesome PR coup. Welcoming a presidential visit with a big “We’re hiring!” announcement sounds like a great way to spark a conversation about its role in rebuilding the economy.

This is not, I suspect, the conversation Amazon was hoping for. Maybe next time Jeff Bezos will redirect the president to Fayetteville.

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