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Post-election, President Obama's populism goes missing

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When it comes to reviving the middle class and reducing the country’s widening income gap, President Obama in his second term has so far offered little more than a classic bait and switch from the strong promises he made during his successful reelection campaign.

While the president has provided leadership on issues that don’t challenge the economic status quo, like immigration reform and same-sex marriage, his administration is still not bucking the bankers and the austerity hucksters peddling their scams.

Meanwhile, the president pleads for patience, based on the discredited theory that if we just hold out a little longer, the recovery that’s humming along for the 1 percent will trickle down to the rest of us.

When Republicans floated that myth during the Reagan administration, Democratic officials howled. Now they fall in line, with a barely a peep as issues of longtime unemployment, falling incomes, the growth of lousy, low-income jobs and rising health care costs ? without any proposals to address them, at the same time his administration pursues a massive secret Pacific  trade deal that dwarfs NAFTA – which was a disaster for jobs in the U.S.

In his inaugural address, the president proclaimed “an economic recovery has begun” and left it at that.

Back in December 2011, the president was warming up the populist theme he would use to batter his opponent, Mitt Romney, as an out-of-touch plutocrat. In Osawatamie, Kansas the president  said: “I am here to say the [the supply siders] are wrong. I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.”

When it came to the economy, Obama blew Romney away. In a Bloomberg  poll, respondents were asked who they thought did a better job laying out a vision for the country’s economic future: President Obama beat Romney by 10 points.

But where are the policies that would give that vision even a fighting chance of becoming reality? Since his reelection, the president has pivoted sharply away from the populism that got him elected towards cuts that hurt the very people he said government should protect.

On a recent visit to family in  Detroit, I was struck again by the painful gap between the president’s rhetoric and his actions, and the stark contrast between the recovery for the banks and corporate profits and the stock market while ordinary people continue to suffer.

Detroit was hit hard by the 2008 financial collapse, and though the Obama administration helped engineer the bailout of General Motors, the city is still struggling under the weight of years of economic decline and bad politics. Home prices have fallen 35 percent over the past three years. That the unemployment rate has dropped from a post collapse high of 16 percent in September 2009 to 10.6 percent in January, still high above the national rate of 7.9 percent, offers only small comfort.

The city, the seventh-largest in the country in 1990 with more than 1 million people, is now 18th largest, with 700,000 people, and officials have closed schools and laid off teachers. While some auto jobs have returned, they pay  half of what they used to, along with scaled-back benefits.

Now the city’s residents are caught in a feud between Michigan’s Republican state government and their own Democratic politicians. While Detroit’s situation may be worse than other old urban areas, the others are not far behind.