Pundits used to 20th Century politics are mystified by the growing “Occupy Wall Street” movement, now spreading to other cities. Like the conservative tea party movement two years ago, its growth comes through new media, a real dissatisfaction with how things are going, and is not centered around specific demands and agendas. Starting small and overlooked in the media, it has grown in breadth and scope and can no longer be ignored.
This creates a problem for President Obama. Obama is a centrist establishment Democrat who despite achieving some significant reforms in health care, finance, stimulus spending and repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” has tried to find common ground with the Republicans. It appeared he was going to succeed too, until the “tea party” movement pushed John Boehner farther right then he originally wanted to go. Fearing wrath from the right, establishment Republicans are running scared and engage in a more ideological and uncompromising rhetoric than any time in the past, including the years of hostility to President Clinton.
Establishment Democrats have responded to this by shifting right; Obama is no exception. He embraced lowering domestic spending to that of any time since the Eisenhower administration, calling for closing of loopholes for the wealthy (like Reagan did) rather than an increase in tax rates on the wealthy, and making regulatory calls which infuriate environmentalists and the left. While his approval rating suffered — probably 15% of the ‘disapprove’ comes from the left — it appeared that liberals had no alternative. There simply is no pressure from the left: no movement, no leader and no alternative.
The calculus in the Obama camp is that an intense campaign combined with fear of the GOP will bring the base home. Republican candidates are weak and vulnerable to negative campaigning that will scare independents into grudgingly vote for Obama as the safer choice. If there is a strong movement on the left, however, Obama might find hostility growing much like Johnson did in the Vietnam war. The most intense protests of 1968 were at the Democratic national convention, after all.
But while the protests are dangerous for Obama, they also represent an opportunity for him to harness the emotion and anger on the street and rekindle the kind of energy that brought him to office in 2008. It won’t be easy — many on the left have become hostile towards a man they believe has drifted to the right of even former President Bush — but it is possible.
The first thing he should do is announce that he is going to Wall Street to talk with the protesters and give a major speech. This should be scheduled for late October, assuring that the protest movement will continue and grow — they won’t give up if the President is planning to visit. In the meantime the President should hone his populist rhetoric to support a key argument: “I tried to meet the Republicans half way, recognizing that we need to work together to solve the problems we face. They refused, saying it was their way or no way. So now I’m taking the argument to the people — I’m asking the American people to send a strong message that things need to change.”
On Wall Street, a place where the Obama campaign raised so much money in 2008, and whose banks have benefited from Obama’s reluctance to anger the business elite, he should declare a new agenda:
1) Reform of the tax code to simplify and make more fair a system that currently taxes the middle class and poor too much, and allows the wealthy to use accountants and tax lawyers to evade paying their fair share. Yeah, he’ll be charged with class warfare, but he should counter by saying it’s not the rich who are at fault, but the politicians. The wealthy are simply acting rationally by trying to pay the legal minimum tax they owe — that’s what almost everyone does, Republican or Democrat. If they aren’t paying their fair share it’s the fault of Washington for making a complex, screwed up and often absurd tax system. The tax system should be made simpler, more fair and clear.
2) A jobs program that aims at rebuilding the middle class and America’s productive capacity. The poor and unemployed aren’t lazy — they want to work. The system that benefited unproductive financial industries who built bubbles based on bizarre financial instruments like Collateralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps should give way to a system that benefits main street businesses and people who want to produce stuff that other people want. A strong middle class is the determinate of a state’s economic health. Our middle class is battered and torn, and that damages the country.
3) Honest talk about debt. He should tell the young people gathered that their generation will inherit a country that has to sell itself off to foreigners thanks to the massive debt the last generation has built up. Starting in 1982 the US has embraced “borrow and spend,” ignoring increased debt. Government has done this, so has the private sector. For a long time the problem could be ignored because unemployment was low and the bubble economy made it appear wealth was strong. Now we see that global debt has created a crisis as bad as the last great depression, but one that cannot be cured with more debt or dismissing this as just part of the business cycle.
The US has to rethink its approach to everything from foreign policy to domestic programs; we can’t afford the kind of budget we’ve had in the past, but we also can’t afford to just cut, since spending cuts can slow the economy. A smart mix of revenue increases, spending cuts, and investments in jobs can turn this around, though it will require global cooperation.
Obama needs to focus on these themes and embrace a populism that can appeal to independents as well as the youth. The fact is that those who dismiss the protests as meaningless do not understand them. It’s just like the old hands in the Arab world who couldn’t comprehend the changes being pushed by protesters from Egypt to Yemen. This is no longer the 2oth Century. Political activism is changing, and the ideas and energy being generated in New York is not going to dissipate. Energy and activism may wax and wane, but a new movement is being born.
To win re-election, Obama needs to show the protesters that despite his slow start, he understands that the country needs fundamental change. While one can say he’s blown the chance by being so establishment in his first four years, in the campaign he won’t run against Obama of ’08 but a real Republican candidate with whom he can compare himself. He’ll also have a lot of money to get his message out.
Moreover, this message can appeal to independents. Most aren’t ideological — if they were, they wouldn’t be independent. They’ve shown they can vote Democratic or Republican, depending on their mood or assessment of whether what’s being done is working. If Obama can make a credible argument that he stands for simpler taxes, a more ambitious jobs plan, and an honest discussion of debt, then as we get into the dog days of the campaign people currently disillusioned thanks to the economy may decide Obama is their best bet.
But he has to go to Wall Street. He can’t ignore a movement driven by the same emotions and ideals that brought so much energy to his campaign in 2008.