Obama’s New Left-Populist Rhetoric

Obama is trying to tap into anger at the 1% expressed through the Occupy movement. Consistently now, he is presenting themes emphasizing his candidacy and policies as benefiting the hard-working 99% in contrast to the richest 1%. In a defining speech in Kansas on December 6, he stated: “It’s wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker, maybe earns $50,000 a year, should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50 million.”

Referring to Teddy Roosevelt, Obama stated: “And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, ‘The fundamental rule of our national life,’ he said, ‘the rule which underlies all others – is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.’ And I believe America is on the way up.”

But in case anyone thinks he has adopted a new, radical approach, he states: “This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefit the middle class, and those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole.” (articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/06/news/la-pn-text-obama-speech-kansas-20111206)

In his January 24 State of the Union address, he stated: “Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires. In fact, if you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98% of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up.” (www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/01/24/us/politics/state-of-the-union-2012-video-transcript.html)

While he has rolled out a more populist rhetoric, he has put forward very few concrete policies. In his State of the Union speech, he called for Congress to put into place his “Buffett Rule” – named after billionaire Warren E. Buffett – where people making more than $1 million per year would pay a minimum effective tax rate of at least 30 percent in income taxes. He also called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and state attorneys general to expand investigations into abusive lending. The new unit, he said, “will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.”

In an attempt to woo labor, he proposed to allocate half of any savings from ending the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan to be used on infrastructure projects, and the other half to be used to reduce the deficit. But no mention has been made of changing the laws to make it easier to organize unions, as he promised in 2008.
At the same time, he proposed an energy plan that the NY Times described as an “expansion of domestic energy supplies, both from traditional fuels like oil and natural gas and from cleaner sources like wind and the sun. He singled out the rapid growth of domestic natural gas production through the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.” (1/25/2012)

Like his mild health care and bank regulation bills, the new rhetoric of Obama doesn’t threaten the interests of big business. In fact, it is in accordance with the views of those members of the ruling elite who see the need to clip the wealth of the very rich a little in order to prevent the social chasm in U.S. society becoming too large and threatening to undermine the system. His emphasis on the rich paying their share can give hope to tens of millions that the system is not completely rigged in the interests of the richest 1% and the banks. Without this, the possibilities of massive explosions of anger are very real.

If opinion polls show Obama and the Democrats not doing well, we must be prepared for the possibility of their swinging to the left, ramping up left-wing populist rhetoric, and even attempting to pass a few left-wing policies. Obama has already begun to swing to the left, Similarly, after slashing $10 billion from Washington state’s public services and programs, Washington state Democrats have announced this election year that they intend to legalize same-sex marriage, which would make Washington the sixth state to do so in addition to the District of Columbia. This is clearly a calculated election ploy intended to exploit the hard work of the LGBTQ rights movement, which as of 2011 succeeded for the first time in history in convincing a majority of Americans to support the right to same-sex marriage.

The disconnect between Obama’s increased left rhetoric and his refusal to propose any radical policies that would actually address the problems facing working-class and poor people is likely to continue. While wanting to win votes, he will attempt to avoid making any promises that will make his corporate sponsors unhappy. His campaign is being run by very conservative elements, determined that Obama present himself as the “moderate centrist” candidate compared to the “radical” Republicans.

Because of the intensity of the social and economic crisis, ordinary working people are desperate to find a politician who can reverse the present situation. In a situation where, according to a recent Pew poll, “two-thirds (67%) think most members of Congress should be replaced,” many will latch on to any candidates or campaigns that seem to be a break from the mold, even if they may not agree with all the ideas of those candidates (www.people-press.org/2011/12/15/section-1-congress-the-parties-and-the-anti-incumbent-mood/). The U.S. public has very little experience in politics and will need to learn from its mistakes. This creates the possibility of political mavericks or right-wing demagogues, like Ron Paul, building a base of support.

As the 2012 election campaign unfolds, members of the corporate elite will continue to search for the best representative for their interests. Clearly, Obama has proven very loyal to those interests as a whole. On the key issues, he has refused to bend to pressure from below or from the left. However, more arrogant and voracious capitalists, like the Koch brothers who backed Governor Walker in Wisconsin, are looking to use this recession and the weakness of the unions to achieve a more drastic shift of resources to their side, and in particular to their own pockets. They resent any idea of “fairness” as socialism and a betrayal of their interests. Other capitalists are looking for a more dynamic and determined leader in the White House who will push through the unpopular policies they demand. They are looking for a better option than Obama, but they could live with Obama if they can’t succeed.