Politics & Law

The politics of populist outrage versus the politics of building

Jonathan Simon

The narrative choices faced by the Obama Administration in confronting the Great Recession were nicely outlined yesterday in the editorial pages of the New York Times. Columnist Frank Rich offered a blistering critique of the Administration for ceding populist outrage to the right by failing to go after Wall Street executives responsible for the financial crash with investigations and stiff punishments, going so far as to say that “the Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene” (read his column). Having chosen to focus on the future rather than the past, Obama has left the Tea Party to reap the passions of an outraged American public.

Rich’s editorial colleague Tom Friedman voices a different kind of disappointment. Obama’s focus on the future, and his talk of investing in rebuilding America, has turned out to be just talk. The billions spent on stimulus turned out to include only tinkering on the edges of a massive need for reinvestment.

In the past two weeks, I’ve taken the Amtrak Acela to the Philadelphia and New York stations. In both places there were signs on the train platforms boasting that new construction work there was being paid for by “the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” that is, the $787 billion stimulus. And what was that work? New “lighting” — so now you can see even better just how disgustingly decayed, undersized and outdated are the rail platforms and infrastructure in two of our biggest cities.

(read Friedman’s column)

The critiques suggest an Obama Presidency caught in between its reluctance to embrace the old politics of governing through crime, and its inability to launch new politics of infrastructure. After his health care defeat in 1994, Bill Clinton made himself into a the Prosecutor-in-Chief, supporting harsh and punitive laws on crime, immigration, and welfare. Clinton was relected, but he accomplished little of importance for the nation. Since the 2008 campaign I have been impressed with Obama’s commitment to avoiding a politics based on demonizing. He could have framed Wall Street leaders as felons and sought to build legitimacy by sending as many of them to prison as possible and he might be more popular now if he had. It may be that he was simply too cosy with Wall Street (which did send him a lot of campaign support in 2008) but I prefer to believe Obama rejects a politics that converts fear into anger by demonizing an enemy and than seeking to punish it. Everything about President Obama’s style as a speaker and a leader, cuts against his effectiveness as a prosecutorial President. The bigger question is why Obama did not try to lead the kind of infrastructure rebuilding politics he promised during the campaign.

Ironically, both the politics of punishment and the politics of building draw on fear which is the essential source of energy in liberal governance. Think of the way FDR drew on fear of the Great Depression and fear of European fascism to create the New Deal and US involvement in the World War II. Obama has not lacked for similar threats against which to mobilize America. Both the financial crisis and last summer’s Gulf oil spill provided powerful examples of the threat posed by decades of underinvestment in infrastructure and under-regulation of corporate greed. Without demonizing either Wall Street or oil companies, Obama could have used the Oval office to make a sustained campaign for rebuilding American infrastructure and regulatory capacity.

It is not too late for both. A stronger Republican hold on congress will make new legislation impossible, but it will frame a stark choice between a government that actively seeks to protect ordinary Americans and one that leaves them to their fates. The Republican effort to repeal the health care reform and the privatize social security will pose this choice starkly come January. Stay tuned…

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime.

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Comments to "The politics of populist outrage versus the politics of building":
    • Carl Williams

      Lark:
      You make great points. Nixon took us off the Gold standard Aug 26, 1971. Gold soared from $36 per oz. to $848 in 1979. Reagan busted the unions. Union members make up the middle class.Bush Senior another Republican made it nearly impossible to find work in the trades in the early nineties.More middle class busting.And now the hapless Republicans have the nerve to say that the Democrats are villains. I don’t think so! George Bush Junior Started a War for control of oil,and to break the OPEC Grip on the G8 partners.Bush appointed Goldman Sachs CEO to the treasury Henry Paulson. On Bushes watch the national dept is now in the trillions.I beg your pardon Mr.Lehrer.

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    • Gary Lehrer '77

      Carl, our country is faced with huge debt, unfunded entitlement programs, loss of manufacturing jobs, a ridiculous IRS code, laws that punish entrepreneurs, Unions that make it actually more difficult to hire union labor and we have a record number of people dependent on welfare and transfer payments. Those are the issues that need to be addressed. I only see that the Republicans, with the support of the Tea Party, are the only ones capable of tackling these issues. I’ll say it again, the Democrats are the greatest destroyers of wealth in the history of mankind. Their fingerprints are all over the financial collapse. Democrats opposed all efforts to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie and Barney “I don’t see any problems here” Frank is the one who needs to be put in jail. Frankly, I am really sick and tired of hearing that we need to keep the Democrats in power to protect us. Carl, this is the worst economy I’ve seen in my entire life I know who is responsible. Unfortunately the link I posted was somehow cut out but it shows how the Democrats were opposed to fixing the problems caused by sub prime lending. All Wall Street did was respond to the distortions caused in the market by poor public policy. Carl, you are extremely well informed and you write good posts with solid information but I think you overlook certain points and don’t concentrate enough on the big picture, which I think you understand.

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    • lark

      Gary Lehrer, you show disregard for the principle of arguing from facts. Hot opinions are not convincing without substance.

      The cut taxes and deficit spend mantra started with Reagan. The only Prez to deliver a balanced budget in the last 40 years was Clinton. He raised taxes on the rich and growth and prosperity soared. The truth about our health care system is that it is one of the worst in terms of public health statistics of any in the developed world, because it is for elites, not the common people. It hurts entrepreneurs, by punishing people who start their own business. Americans can’t strike out on their own because health care insurance is unaffordable or unavailable. Thus we are kept as corporate slaves, even as ‘American’ corporations slash wages, benefits, and send jobs overseas, all to the delight of Republicans.

      The Republicans are elitists who want to impoverish the rest of the country and they don’t care what lies they use, who they toady up to, or how they poison our democracy in order to do it.

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    • Gary Lehrer '77

      Lark – unfortunately my link with supporting evidence was cut from my post. Perhaps there is a rule that you can’t post links or maybe it is not supported somehow by the software that runs the blog. I stand by my statements, I have spent a lot of time researching the issues and have had my findings on the financial crisit corroborated by a primary source. Anyone can look up the figures, the Wikipedia article on the Reagan years cites the fact that while taxes were cut federal receipts grew. Also, Reagan had to spend to make up for Carter’s cut backs in the military. Clinton came closest to balancing the budget because Republicans led by Newt Gingrich kept his spending in check. I believe I first heard of the practice of Red Lining when I took Macroeconomics at Cal and at that time became aware that liberals wanted to force banks to make loans to poor people and minorities that could not ordinarily get them due to their economic circumstances. I could go and on but won’t. Believe me my positions are based on facts and cold logic. Your displeasure with me derives from the fact that I do not subscribe the liberal’s mythology surrounding Republicans, conservatives and the Tea Party.

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    • Gary Lehrer '77

      The policies of the Democratic party have led to the greatest destruction of wealth in the history of mankind. Our government is taxing, spending and over regulating us to death. Unfunded mandates, entitlement programs, sweetheart deals between corrupt unions leaders and corrupt politicians are another part of the problem. Obamacare will destroy the best healthcsre system in the world. What we need is a return to the principles of economic freedom and liberty that built this country. I don’t need government to protect me, we all need protection from the so-called liberals, the entrenched privileged class that runs this country and the destructive effects of the modern welfare state. If you want to arrest anyone and throw them in jail for the housing crisis I would start with the people who ran Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters and Chris Dodd. That would be real justice. It’s really pointless to blame Republicans and Wall Street executives when the facts point in the totally opposite direction. If anything that is the source of “populist outrage”, the fact that the people who are supposed to be running the government for the benefit of the people are busy using government programs as a method of bribing voters.

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