All that August town-hall rage that spilled over into September, and prompted a congressman to yell "You lie" to Obama while he was addressing a joint session of Congress is not rooted in angst about healthcare reforms. Sure, there are plenty of Americans who see Obama as an agent of Big Government. But a recent poll shows 70% of Americans favour the most drastic of the healthcare-reform proposals, the creation of a "public option" government insurer to provide more competition for the private-sector insurers.
No, the anger - and it was only partly manufactured by mischievous G.O.P. operatives - is more broad-based than that. It's pent-up frustration over the growing gap between haves and have-nots, the three past decades in which middle-class incomes have flat-lined while the top 0.5% of Americans have seen their income increase by several multiples. It's the populist Main Street outrage that the Wall Street tycoons are still paying themselves bonuses, much less being canned or tossed into the clink, despite having triggered the recession that has thrown 7.1 million Americans out of work since last October. And it's a backlash against change - specifically the free trade, globalization and outsourcing that has hollowed out the U.S. manufacturing sector, phenomena over which Americans have no control. If anything, the powers that be in Washington, Democrat and Republican, have supported expansion of the free trade that has seen jobs shipped offshore.
This recent Democrat-commissioned poll gets at the root of Obama's challenge in gaining popular support for not only healthcare reform but other wrenching changes like energy self-sufficiency and climate change. Quite simply, a lot of Americans feel Obama and Washington are not on their side. As the chart shows, Americans believe banks and brokerages have received a whack of government assistance, while they and their problems have been ignored.
Obama has to accept much of the blame for this, since he's the one framing the debate - or should be, rather than letting the scaremongers do so. His path would be far easier if he laid into "malefactors of great wealth," as Theodore Roosevelt called the tycoons he very publicly took to the woodshed when the Gilded Age ended badly for Main Street. FDR, Obama's unacknowledged role model, similarly demonized Wall Street high-rollers to great populist effect. And never mind that new, misguided tariff walls had vastly more to do with turning a late-1920s recession into the Great Depression than the cupidity of bankers and brokers.
Obama has had plenty of harsh words for Wall Street miscreants. But he hasn't cleaned out the executive suites of the get-rich-quick operators whose wealth came at the expense of Main Street. He has held himself above anything that could be construed as class warfare. Which is admirable enough as policy, but lousy politics. Recall that Obama primaries opponent Hillary Clinton finished strongly, collecting more late-primary delegates than Obama, after a makeover in which she became a fighter for everyday Americans. Obama is a victim here of one of his virtues, which is not to waste time looking for villains - particularly when the villains extend well beyond Wall Street to lax regulators and those many Americans now paying the price for living beyond their means. His sights are so firmly set on the future, and on realistic rather than crowd-pleasing solutions, that he won't toss malefactors to the lions. (Obama's firing of Rick Wagoner as CEO of a bailed-out GM is the exception that proves the rule.)
Naked populism, it can be argued, went out with William Jennings Bryan, three-time failed presidential standard-bearer for the Democrats early in the 20th century. We're more civilized than that now. Or so we like to think. Somehow, though, I think, along with the likes of Paul Krugman, that Obama would be having an easier time gaining passage of his admittedly ambitious agenda if he singled out some well-deserving miscreants on Wall Street and in the medical-industrial complex - private insurers, in particular - for some good old-fashioned fire-breathing vilification. It would sure beat where Obama now finds himself, a leader whose calm, deliberative manner is too easily mistaken for kinship with a self-interested status quo.
Krugman has picked up on the dangers of Obama's "above-the-fray" approach:
"[Foot-dragging on Wall Street pay reform] was another example of something we’ve seen before: Mr. Obama’s visceral reluctance to engage in anything that resembles populist rhetoric. And that’s something he needs to get over.
"It’s not just that taking a populist stance on bankers’ pay is good politics — although it is: the administration has suffered more than it seems to realize from the perception that it’s giving taxpayers’ hard-earned money away to Wall Street, and it should welcome the chance to portray the G.O.P. as the party of obscene bonuses.
"Equally important, in this case populism is good economics. Indeed, you can make the case that reforming bankers’ compensation is the single best thing we can do to prevent another financial crisis a few years down the road.
"It’s time for the president to realize that sometimes populism, especially populism that makes bankers angry, is exactly what the economy needs.
So has the Krugman's NYT colleague Frank Rich:
"Obama would have looked stronger if he’d stood up more proactively to the screamers along the way, or at least to the ones not packing guns. As the Roosevelt biographer Jean Edward Smith has reminded us, it didn’t harm the New Deal for F.D.R. to tell a national radio audience on election eve 1936 that he welcomed the “hatred” of his enemies. Indeed Obama instantly gained a foot or two in height Wednesday night once that South Carolina clown hollered “You lie!"