The President Needs to Hear Millions of Second Opinions on His Economic Plans
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This is part of a special AlterNet series on Obama's latest plans for a rescue of the bankers and Wall Street's toxic assets.
Read our editorial on the big picture.
The president is getting what he asked for, but perhaps not what he had in mind. During the campaign, Barack Obama beckoned Americans to put aside their cynicism about politics and re-engage as active citizens. They are now doing so with red-hot anger. They are outraged by events and forcing their way into congressional affairs and behind closed doors where policy wonks discuss issues with cerebral civility. The president is now trapped between these two realms -- the governing elites who decide things and the people who are governed. Which side is he on? If he does not choose wisely, the anger could devour his presidency.
The immediate impetus is the latest outrage from the financial sector. AIG, the failed insurance giant on government life support, proceeded to hand out $165 million in employee bonuses. Because Washington has pumped $170 billion into this zombie corporation, people quickly grasped that AIG was redistributing their tax money. On March 13, the White House sent out Larry Summers, the president's economic adviser, to explain things. Government has no choice, Summers said, because this is a government of laws and we must honor contracts. On Monday, the president scrapped that line, hoping to dodge the outrage.
Something fundamental has been altered in American politics. Encouraged by Obama's message of hope, agitated by darkening economic prospects, many people have thrown off sullen passivity and are trying to reclaim their role as citizens. This disturbs the routines of Washington but has great potential for restoring a functioning democracy. Timely intervention by the people could save the country from some truly bad ideas now circulating in Washington and on Wall Street. Ideas that could lead to the creation of a corporate state, legitimized by government and financed by everyone else. Once people understand the concept, expect a lot more outrage.
Public anger is likely to be a recurring episode, because the president has budgeted another $750 billion to rescue the financial system from its troubles. If Congress gives him the money, people will be watching where it goes. Obama is vulnerable to the blowback. In his address to Congress last month, he promised, "This is not about helping banks, it's about helping people." The first half of his statement is demonstrably not true, as people see for themselves and as bankers parade their arrogant excess. The second half is merely wishful.
"Populist anger" is a condescending label pundits use to suggest an irrational, unruly temperament. But what's really going on is deeper and potentially more forceful. It will not be contained with good rhetoric or symbolic gestures.
Populism was the highly creative, self-made movement formed by desperate farmers in the late 19th century. It is disparaged in elite circles, but it generated vital ideas that ultimately reshaped government and democracy. We are not there yet, not even close. But the impulse for small-d democracy could be very healthy -- if the political system learns to listen and respond.
At the center of this story is Obama, who inherited the Democratic Party's awkward straddle between monied interests and working people. I voted for him joyfully and sympathize. His message to the nation last week reflected his dilemma. "I don't want to quell anger. People are right to be angry. I'm angry," he told reporters on Wednesday. Then he pivoted: "What I want us to do is channel our anger in a constructive way."