Obama’s Challenge: Tamp Down Populist Anger
Despite the occasional populist-sounding outburst required to contain widespread popular anger over grotesque economic disparities and corporate corruption, Obama no longer stands up before giant crowds to proclaim that (in a frequent Obama refrain on the campaign trail) “Change doesn’t happen from the top down. Change happens from the bottom up.” After having mobilized citizens to vote out the old Republican regime in the name of progressive and democratic transformation, the in-power Obama team has a different message for the people: calm down and let the political class do its work. This is no time for “anger” and “ideology,” which stand in the way of “getting things done.” The populace is supposed to return quietly and hopefully to remote, divided, and private realms, dutifully executing their paid work assignments (if they still have jobs), buying stuff (largely on credit thanks to the continuing lag of wages behind productivity in the U.S.), and investing their modest savings (if they have any) in the stock market again (as Obama has recently admonished Americans to do). They are to watch their telescreens while the new system-maintaining coordinators (including supposedly “pragmatic” and “non-ideological” technicians like Summers and Geithner) do the serious and sober work of putting the profit system—described by Obama in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope as “our greatest asset…a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources”—back on its feet. Summers lectures Americans to heed Obama’s call for an “age of responsibility” by agreeing to dutifully “manage [their] own finances” and “do [their] own jobs…. People,” Summers told NBC’s David Gregory, “need to work hard, they need to play by the rules, and those of us with responsibility for economic policy need to do everything we can to make the economy work.” Appearing on the PBS “News Hour” on the day that the latest phase of the bankers’ bailout was announced, Summers said that Obama “recognize[s] and he share[s] the outrage that people feel at what has happened, at some of the bonuses that have been paid, about some of the irresponsibility that brought us to this point. But he also,” Summers added, “urge[s] that we can’t govern out of anger, that we can’t let our rage, our legitimate anger, stop us from the necessary steps.”
A front-page New York Times “news analysis” in March noted that the Obama political and public relations team was “increasingly concerned” about “a populist backlash” that could target the new bailout-friendly White House as well as the investor class. According to Times correspondent Adam Nagourney, “a shifting political mood challenges Mr. Obama’s political skills, as he seeks to acknowledge the anger without becoming a target of it. A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional.” Nagourney cited unnamed Obama advisors on how the new White House “risks… backlash as Mr. Obama tries to signal that he shares American anger but pushes for more bail-out money for banks and Wall Street” (March 16, 2009).Consistent with that contradictory and manipulative goal, Obama expressed calculated indignation against “excessive” executive bonuses at AIG (originally approved by Geithner) and made carefully orchestrated visits expressing concern about poverty and job loss to hard-hit places like Pomona, California and Elkhart, Indiana. These were well understood by political and media elites to be public relations (“expectation-managing”) efforts to “get ahead” of “populist rage” over the corporate agenda that continues to hold sway in Washington in the age of Obama.