Going Populist: Obama’s New Platform – OpEd


After a period of seemingly quiet dithering, it seems that President Barack Obama has moved into seizing the populist moment in his stance against the fat cat contingent of American society. The theme is ‘togetherness’ – a country can only progress if it is united in its ranks. This collective message has sent Republicans over the edge, who find it considerably disuniting. (What did the wealthy do wrong in simply being wealthy? they ask.)

It all began in Obama’s Osawatomie speech on Tuesday, where the president proposed a tax cut extension to square with a vision President Teddy Roosevelt would have endorsed in that same patch of Kansas 101 years previously. In drawing on the Republican Roosevelt, Obama is certainly playing with an altered brand of history – Teddy by 1910 was hardly one for bipartisan deals, a political pugilist who eventually became a Bull Moose progressive and lost his own bid for presidential re-election in 1912. No matter. Teddy is a caricature, and political caricatures have freight in political battles.

But why Kansas, a state that has a well developed aversion to Democrats – at least since 1964? For one thing, it barely figures in the electoral campaigns and tends to lie low in the spots presidents visit. Occasional acts of novelty are well regarded in the school of public relations.

The sacred cow in the Obama view is the middle class. The White House website has an apocalyptic masthead featuring a warning: ‘If Congress Doesn’t Act, Middle Class Taxes Increase In…’ (At this writing, the clock says 21 days, 17 hours, 22 minutes and 50 seconds.)

That class must not be slaughtered before the juggernaut of self-interest. (Here, Obama seemed to be drawing from the rhetoric of the Occupy Movement that has spread across the nation.) He has spoken about the ‘make-or-break moment for the middle class’ and aspirants seeking to move into it, offering a grim alternative should he fail to retake office – a world where Social Darwinism runs rampant, allowing institutions and citizens to ‘play by their own rules’. At stages of his address, he sounded like an advocate of Queensbury rules. ‘I believe that this country succeeds where everybody gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone engages in fair play.’

The stance taken by Obama has set a new tone, one that will urge the GOP to ready for battle. For such conservative groups as the Heritage Foundation, Obama revealed himself in Kansas to be ‘a dyed-in-the-wool progressive who sees the federal government as the answer to all of America’s problems’ (Heritage, Dec 7). More spending on infrastructure is promised, more will be pumped into education programs, and that satanic evil of regulation will be enforced.

While Obama is himself tinkering with the historical record, individuals such as Matthew Spalding, vice president of the The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics makes a spectacular fist of it. ‘There are no class distinctions in America.’ Fairness, in any case, is a contrivance – the product of ‘experts, bureaucrats and political elites’.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the platform by the administration is simply one of populism lite, or one which involves a genuine attempt to contend with the crisis affecting the middle class. The Democratic proposal to pass down a tax cut to most of the working population would be offset by a 1.9 percent surtax on those with gross incomes of $1 million. The GOP, with its own special interpretation of fairness, has gagged at the proposal.

Times are desperate for the Obama administration, and an unemployment level of 8.6 percent is a constant reminder that his time in office may well be a short one. While both the Democrats and the GOP are sizing off with fantasies, the fantasy of the latter is just that bit more implausible.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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