Obama's Message Needs a Bit More Populism

President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan passed the House of Representatives last week yet most commentators viewed this transparent victory as something akin to a defeat because no Republicans supported the bill, despite the fact that the President had made such a concerted effort to reach out to them. There is a word for such analysis: crazy.

When Obama reaches out to the GOP and they decline his offer, who looks bad? I suppose the base of the Republican Party, the ones who think we got into this economic mess because taxes are too high and there is too much regulation, they might be proud of the congressional Republicans, but anyone who got a pink slip recently, or knows someone who does, can be forgiven for thinking they failed to rise to the historical moment. I do not see how this judgment reflects badly on Obama.


The danger on this narrative is that it could lead Senate Republicans to become more intransigent at a time when the President needs to push this legislation through quickly. It is critical that Obama get out front on promoting his own stimulus package and be seen doing so on behalf of the average citizen. The administration should be perfectly willing to let non-stimulative aspects of the bill fall to the wayside and return to them via the normal legislative route. But, the nation needs the stimulus and the President needs a big legislative win. I would give Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe almost anything they want and would also lean on Commerce Secretary-designate Judd Gregg to bring New Hampshire’s new GOP senator on board.

So, keep reaching out to Republicans, but put the emphasis back on passing a bill. Make the GOP look obstructionist. Raise the temperature in the room. Get the bill passed.

If the narrative of a stimulus bill run amok was crafted by the GOP, the loss of two high level appointees because they failed to pay taxes is more of a self-inflicted wound. Still, it is unlikely most voters will blame President Obama because Tom Daschle didn’t pay his taxes. In fact, I suspect most voters won’t even remember the episode so long as there are no more such episodes. Note to administration job-seekers: Pay your damned taxes and if you haven’t, drop out now. Many people are casual about breaking tax laws but that doesn’t make it right and those who do it are correctly seen as less trustworthy by the public. Being moral means being moral when your deeds are not likely to come to light, not just making sure you are behaving when likely to get caught.

Daschle was right to remove himself from consideration because the President needs to focus the entire country on the need for the stimulus package and the related, but different, need to use the remaining TARP funds to help get the banking sector back on track. The stimulus package is an easier sell, both to the Congress and to the public. Everyone has had to jump start a car before, so they understand the logic, but the administration and its allies simply need to be more forceful in making their case. When the GOP throws distractions into the mix, call them distractions and move on.

The TARP funds need to be deployed effectively and, not being an economist, I am not sure what that means. I do understand that the federal government has every right to insist that any company that receives federal monies should be forbidden from paying any executives more than the $400,000 the President makes. I saw a whining official from some bug business lobbying group complain on MSNBC or CNN about the hardship this would pose for hard-working Wall Street brokers. 400k as hardship? Let him come wash dishes in the restaurant where I used to work and I will show him what hardship is.

The Democrats have found a winning issue on executive pay. When it comes time to reform the tax code (sometime after all pretense of bi-partisan cooperation collapses), the President should propose that executive pay above 400k not be deductible as a business expense. We subsidize those big salaries and bonuses even if the companies don’t get bailout funds. There is no national interest in anyone making gobs of money. There is an obvious national interest in recruiting a class of corporate leaders who are concerned about their work because work – as a stock broker or as a dishwasher – brings dignity to the human spirit and adds value to our society and culture.

President Obama is a uniquely gifted communicator but he appears not to have a populist bone in his body. Still, at a moment when he needs to get his stimulus bill back on track, and shape the TARP program in ways that are noticeably different from those of his predecessor, Obama should indulge a little populism. He is re-writing the social contract whether he likes it or not. Symbolic actions on executive pay, insisting that those with tax issues withdraw their nominations, and reaching out to Republicans, these things matter. And, after 28 years of Reaganomics, it is time for the government to champion the have-nots.




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10 years 2 months ago
What's populist about this giant monument to crony capitalism, the ''stimulus bill'' designed to load the fat cats overstuffed larder. Look very, very closely at President Obama and you see George W. Bush looking back at you. Except this Bush is even more insanely determined to do everything in his power to let the ravenous plutocrats devour America.


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