Monday, October 17, 2011

Obama thinks he can convince people he's suddenly populist. I doubt it.

Peter Wallsten reporting in the Washington Post last week:
President Obama and his team have decided to turn public anger at Wall Street into a central tenet of their reelection strategy.

The move comes as the Occupy Wall Street protests gain momentum across the country and as polls show deep public distrust of the nation’s major financial institutions.

And it sets up what strategists see as a potent line of attack against Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, a former investment executive whom Obama aides plan to portray as a wealthy Wall Street sympathizer.
The campaign can and will yet take many tacks. But it sure sounds like they're going to give this one a try.

It says something about the impact the Occupy Wall Street movement has had on the politics. The White House seems to genuinely fear a populist movement from the left leaving them behind. That's good that they fear it.

Wallsten rightly points out several ways in which the Obama campaign's strategy will be, um, tricky. The Administration bailed out the banks and is filled with the bank people (right up to Chief of Staff), and the campaign relies rather heavily on the bank people's money. How on earth does the campaign expect to fool people into thinking Obama is suddenly a populist? It seems unlikely.

The President can make pledges about what he'd like Congress to do, and what he'll do in 2013. But suffice to say it's not exactly likely he's going to give back all his donations from the bankers, and renounce all such future donations. Or that he'll get rid of the bankers who occupy many of the key posts in the administration.

The Obama Campaign thinks, I think, that it can pull this off because they'll be running against Mitt Romney. And when both general election candidates claim to be men of the people, team Obama thinks they can make a more convincing claim, and will win over the public.

I'm not so sure it would work that way. Romney, or whoever the Republican candidate, will come up with endless grist about how much the Obama Administration and campaign are one with the bankers. They won't even have to stretch the facts if they care not to. And while it would be awkward for Mitt himself to criticize Obama as being Big Money, he can have his surrogates do much of that work, or hand over their tips for free to the press.

Such a battle, over who is more populist, likely wouldn't be won based on the facts of which candidate gets somewhat less money from bankers than the other candidate. It would instead probably be won based on the usual: which candidate plays the refs better, or is perceived to be more like the guy you'd want to have a beer with. In the 2012 election, it may also be heavily dependent on which candidate people think will be more likely to get them a job. It's not clear yet which candidate will win on that. But populist rhetoric by itself, not backed up by action, probably won't fool that many people.

If team Obama thinks they'll necessarily win a populist battle because they'll be running against Romney, I think they're mistaken. Remember, many people thought George W. Bush was something of a folksy man of the people. They were unaware, or didn't care about, his wealth.

As progressives, I think we should judge Obama on these issues in the same way we should judge him on most issues: on his actual actions, not on his pledges. If he pledges, for example, that he'll actually prosecute some bankers, but that it will take time, so hold until 2013, we should mostly ignore the pledge. But if he actually did it, then perhaps we'd reward him with our votes.


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