Obama made a populist-sounding speech this week in Kansas, just down the way from the John Brown memorial. If Americans still studied history, this would not be the first figure one would expect a politician to be associating with, given that if the man were alive today, he’d be sitting in a 4 x 4 cell in Guantánamo.
But I digress. Obama had a lot to say about the unfairness of our current tax and income structure and even summoned the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt (not the conqueror, the trust-buster). He praised the ‘largest middle class’ the world had ever known, foreshadowing his prompt acknowledgment that the ‘basic bargain’ generated by the Depression and the war to create said middle class has ‘eroded’. So far, no earth-shaking novelties. His critique is red meat for the Democratic base: the benefits of growth have flowed to the top while ‘everybody else’ is struggling. OMG, the man is about to ‘mic check’ and carry his sleeping bag down to Zucotti Park.
It gets better: ‘breathtaking greed’, ‘hard work stopped paying off’, ‘those at the very top grow wealthier than ever before’. Obama’s rhetoric is back to 2008—would he perhaps be running for office?
The creepy part of Obama’s speech, however, is how mismatched his lofty words are from his own actions. This is the guy who held perhaps the most powerful cards since the 1930s to break the power of the financier class that he now criticizes when the banksters crawled to Washington pleading for a lifeline to save their institutions. Instead of extracting real concessions and curbing their power, what did he do? He permitted Geithner and Bernancke to pour cash into the largest banks virtually in secret (the details are coming out only now with Bernancke feverishly resisting); perpetrators like Goldman Sachs suffered no haircuts on AIG exposures; banker bonuses a year after the crisis were as obscenely huge as ever; no investigation has been conducted into the sneaky mortgage practices that Obama now dares to criticize, and the few serious attempts to do so (Schneiderman in new York, Coakley in Massachusetts, Masto in Nevada) face concerted Administration attempts to undermine them; no Justice Department prosecutions have been brought against any major players; Elizabeth Warren, the consumers’ advocate, was boxed into a corner and marginalized; mortgage relief for homeowners has been a fraud via easily-gamed programs like HAMP; and on and on.
Obama talks a good game, especially when he wants votes. Maybe he even believes that stuff, which some people will care about. (I don’t.) But in wielding vast executive powers at a time when the entire country would have supported actions to alleviate the gross unfairness embedded in our system, Obama buckled. He folded while holding a straight flush and now wants us to take his rhetorical flights at face value.
Meanwhile, here in New York State our governor has just shifted gears as well. After weeks of insisting that tax breaks for the state’s millionaires’ were sacrosanct, Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday that Albany’s huge budget deficit requires that the super-rich pay some, too. It’s not a great deal, but Cuomo saw the need to use the word ‘fair’ or ‘fairness’ three times in his 60-second sound bite.
This shows the impact of the Occupy movement and the growing consensus that the system is stacked against the 99%. But it’s far too early to crow victory. This is a tactical retreat by the Democratic accomplices of big money, not a change of heart. There is no rediscovery of the core value of a progressive tax system that provides social services, and public transport, education, environmental protection and infrastructure will continue to absorb the costs of the financial crisis and the radically resliced pie that is now becoming a permanent feature of our class society.
Meanwhile, the GOP circus makes it pathetically easy for ambitious Dems to don the heroic robes of people’s champion while doing very little. With a cariacature like Newt Gradgrind—er, I mean Gingrich leading the opposition and calling for the return of child labor, it’s pretty simple to look humane by contrast. But no one should expect praise for endorsing the Emancipation Proclamation or the abolition of foot-binding.