Our Obama Is Not a Populist

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It's instructive how tone deaf Obama himself initially was to the populist dam burst the AIG bonuses were going to cause. He spent the early part of this past week playing catch up and defense. Larry Summers expressed on Sunday what likely was the president's view--irritated & grouchy but our hands are legally tied, yada yada yada.

Look, anyone looking for a public figure predisposed emotionally or intellectually to the populist style or manner should know by now to look elsewhere beyond Barack.

"Pitchfork" Ben Tilden he ain't.

Think back to August and Sept. up until the crash of the financial markets on the 15th (at which time he was trailing McCain). Remember how frustrating it was that he was still having trouble connecting emotionally with blue-collar and older white voters outside his natural liberal constituency? How everyone was peeing themselves advising him to get angry and/or be more populist?

I remember thinking: Did we nominate the Democratic heir to Bobby Kennedy? whose death cost us dearly and for generations with urban/suburban blue-collar Catholics and whites in places like WV--traditional Dem constituences that eventually became known as "Reagan Democrats" as the substantial demise of the New Deal coalition quickened after 1968. Or did we nominate someone more in the cooler, more cerebral progressive manner and tradition of Gene McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson?

I put it this way in mid-September: Obama's greatest fans (myself included) want to believe they've nominated this generation's political equivalent of Sugar Ray Robinson, who, skinny legs and all, still was the greatest fighter pound for pound who ever lived. The "Yes, We Can"/will i. am political equivalent of the boxer who put the sugar in the sweet science and also played it like a violin. But increasingly those same devout supporters fear they may instead have nominated the political equivalent of Sammy Davis Jr.--an entertainer of vast gifts to be sure but a tap-dancer nevertheless.

But what's important to remember is...we were wrong, and Obama was not only right, he was wiser and more far-seeing in a way that clobbered both the Republicans and his skeptical yet adoring supporters with the lethal efficiency of Sugar Ray's most furious, sudden-in-the-dead-of-night left-right flurries. (McCain did prove to be very much the equivalent of Jake LaMotta, too. Think here of the bloodied, beaten but proudly still standing DeNiro in Raging Bull staggering around the ring and defiantly saying, "Hey, Way...you din't take me down, Way. I'm still standing, Way. You din't take me down.")

In the aftermath of the global financial market crash on Sept. 15, when McCain's GOP fell like Humpty Dumpty off The Wall (Street) and its two wings (corporate, don't-regulate, tax-cut conservatism on the one hand and Bible Belt fundamentalist anti-science social conservatism on the other) weren't flight-capable--and his lurching-like-a-drunk-who'd-misplaced-his-car-keys response was to "suspend his campaign"--the country looked towards Obama...hard.

If he'd been pretending to be something he's not, a fire-breathing, angry (black?) "populist," he'd still have won, but the verdict would have been far more wary. Instead, they liked what they saw and heard...a calm, stable, reassuringly reasonable-sounding guy who seemed really, really nice and obviously cared about average folks and didn't seem at all like the impulsive, crazy type who'd pull the car out of the ditch and then James Dean it down the road to its final, fiery apocalyptic crash.

As for Dr. Paul Krugman, his critique of policy these days is deserving of a Pulitzer in literature to go with his Nobel in economics, just as I think Frank Rich is earning a Pulitzer for the insight with which he is analyzing and describing the nation's current mood and temper.

But Dr. Krugman doesn't have to pass a budget while also not splitting his party in half (at least in the Senate) between liberals and moderate-to-center-right Blue Dogs. And as right as Dr. Krugman's critique of the stim was--too small at least by half and too cautious, half-focused and unimaginative in other ways--he also knows that what we got was what was politically possible in the immediate aftermath of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era.

Will Obama, his moderation and judicial, preternaturally stoic temperament, prove to be as fatally out of step with the prevailing national mood as Jimmy Carter was? Maybe.

But I'm sure as hell not hopping off the bus. Certainly not when Obama's tactical and strategic plate is full these days with a budget that's a serious, and politically realistic, attempt to tilt the political and policy playing field the other way just when an enitre era of by and large unchecked conservatism still is in the early stages of cracking up. And let's not forget that that conservatism was rooted in the mood of the country itself, and not just its policy thrust at the federal level.

All that being said, I'll be profoundly disappointed if the populist outrage over the AIG bonuses doesn't provoke a JFK-at-the-Bay-of-Pigs-like epiphany in Obama vis a vis the mainstream Wall Street advice he's getting from the likes of Summers, Tim Geithner, Bernanke et al.

But if it does, he won't turn the Democratic party into the Jacobin Club, and he won't be Robespierre and guillotine Summers/Geithner/Bernanke or any of the rest of their mainstream Wall Street establishment cartel. He'll be far more likely to go the JFK/RFK route and quietly go about scattering his economic version of the post-Bay-of-Pigs Dulles CIA/National Security State to the winds.

A good place to start would be finding a big place in the new regulatory system (when it's inevitably promulgated and put in place) for someone with the brains, tenacity and principles to take these bastards on. Someone who's also deserving of political rehabilitation and is too damn talented not to be a player in this new era: Eliot Spitzer, who wrote this in a Slate commentary a few days ago:

The appearance that this was all an inside job is overwhelming. AIG was nothing more than a conduit for huge capital flows to the same old suspects, with no reason or explanation.




What we think of Obama is a projection

I said during the campaign that all Democrats were projecting their own views onto Obama. Liberals thought he was a liberal, and he is, kind of. Conservatives saw him as at least a little bit conservative -- which he is, in some ways. Moderates saw in him someone who would weigh issues carefully, who would think before he speaks, and who would listen to both sides -- which he does. Populists figured, "Hey, the guy's a black community activist. He must be for the little guy" -- which he is, in his own way.

What some liberals are having a problem with right now -- because economic woes are front and center -- is that Barack Obama is an intellectual liberal, not an empathetic liberal. He doesn't feel the pain of others, he sees their pain. (That is at least better than his predecessor, who neither felt nor saw anyone else's pain.) He has to work at the empathy piece. I think Michelle Obama is more empathetic -- it shows, in a superficial but telling way, in her willingness to hug the people she meets. So Barack is the kind of lawyer who could look at an issue like AIG's bonuses and see, "Contract. Rule of Law." He didn't look at it and see, "Incipient PR disaster."

That's something that he needs to work on.

That's something he needs to work on....

Indeed, as you say. And I agree fully with your other insights into Obama as having been last year, for Democrats and other supporters, Chance the Gardener but with personality and (usefully opaque) substance.

Reading Frank Rich's column today (and, as usual, it's a must-read), I realize I forgot to mention the other occasion in the past 60 days when Barack significantly failed to anticipate the country's mood of populist outrage/bailout fatigue: the Dashcle nomination.

I don't think Frank is declaring an end of public trust in the president, but he is saying it's at risk. That the president has two strikes on called pitches and that a big, whiffing swing and a miss on an outside ball on the banking crisis and...Jimmy Carter one-term economic failure could become a potentially fatal media meme.

(From Rich's column: The “dirty little secret,” Obama told Leno on Thursday, is that “most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal.” An even dirtier secret is that a prime mover in keeping that stuff legal was Summers, who helped torpedo the regulation of derivatives while in the Clinton administration. His mentor Robert Rubin, no less, wrote in his 2003 memoir that Summers underestimated how the risk of derivatives might multiply “under extraordinary circumstances.”

This link from Rich's piece, about the Greenspan/Rubin decision in the late '90s to torpedo the regulation of derivatives, is essential reading: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/09/business/economy/09greenspan.html

Seems that Obama's confronted with two differing views on the crisis: that's a liquidity problem (Geithner, Wall Street), that's an insolvency crisis (Krugman, maybe even Christina Romer and presumably JK Galbraith). If we're all keeping our eye on the ball, this is what we'll watch: will he, as I think he's temperamentally inclined to do, try to forge a conciliatory, patchwork consensus between these two (increasingly?) polarized points of view, or will he make a hard decision. This one; not that one.

FWIW, we're having some fairly lively discussions on these issues over on the progressive West Virginia site, West Virginia Blue:


Why is everyone angry about the bonuses?

I really don't see a reason to be angry about the bonuses. You pretty much have this downward spiral at AIG. They need SOMEONE to manage the company, and when no one say "Yes", you have to resort to making it worth their while. While you may say these guys failed, you have to be pretty clear on the fact that these guys aren't idiots. They're professionally trained executives that messed up. But better to have them than no one managing this company.

And clearly, Obama, The Treasury, and Senate Dems knew this would happen. THEY'RE the ones that allowed AIG to hand out bonuses. It's almost as if you deliberately made a blunder just so you can get support by attacking a Private Corporation. It's sad and it's stupid.

Kudos to Obama for not falling in line with theses crazy House Dems that want to tax 90%.

This is not Populism going on here. This is total Mob Rule.

It's imperative now...

that the US, in domestic politics as well as our international stances, send a strict, principled rule of law message to the world, and, as you say, the Congress's mob rule-ish actions did not meet that standard.

Much better and obviously more appropriate was Andrew Cuomo and his course of action.

I'm not going to be disappointed in the least if Cuomo challenges Paterson a year from now.