The working class needs Obama the Populist

Why the ‘New Democrats’ are old news.

Senate Votes on Buffett Rule Cloture
On April 16, the US Senate killed the 'Buffett Rule' - Obama's proposal for a millionaire's tax [GALLO/GETTY]

New Haven, CT – For the first time in my life, a president has the guts to make economic injustice the centrepiece of his re-election campaign and has made a tax on the very, very rich (minimum 30 per cent) the centrepiece of his domestic policy platform.  

Yet some Democrats want President Obama to stop talking about fairness and talk instead about “opportunity”.

A survey by Third Way, a neoliberal think tank in Washington, finds that voters in swing states prefer an “opportunity framework on the economy over one based on fairness”. The survey describes centrist voters as “Soccer Moms”, “Reagan Democrats” and “Rockefeller Republicans“. “Fairness” is evidently too populist; it’s not what they want to hear.

I’m no pollster, but I know one thing. Nobody gets fired up over a lack of opportunity. But injustice can spark a movement. And given that the major parties have grown more alike, not less, Obama’s decision to go populist is truly a third way.

An Obama re-election could put the end of Third Way’s vision as a credible alternative to normal partisan politics. Third Way is the ideological heir to the Democratic Leadership Council. These were the self-described New Democrats who moved the Democratic Party to the centre-right. They were largely responsible for its abandoning of the working class and getting into bed with Wall Street and Corporate America.   

Ronald Reagan is credited, rightfully, for shifting the focus of economic policy from redistribution of wealth downward to redistribution of wealth upward, but that trend began with Jimmy Carter. Carter laid the foundation for the DLC by slashing the capital gains tax, ushering in deregulation, and making the payroll tax (Social Security and Medicare) more regressive, all of which privileged the interests of business and the rich.

 US senate reject ‘Buffett tax’ rule

Bill Clinton was the DLC’s champion and his 1992 victory codified its worldview of supply-side economics. During those years, Clinton said: “The era of big government is over,” before calling for renewed individual initiative and philanthropy. He hurt the poor to help the poor with welfare reform. And he told investment banks that it was okay to gamble with other people’s money, because the government implicitly covered all bets.

Even so, last week, Senate Republicans killed Obama’s proposal for a millionaire’s tax, commonly known as the “Buffett Rule“. The filibuster clearly points to conservatives as protectors of the very rich – so willing to go to the wall for the very rich that they are willing to risk appearing downright radical.

Swing voters of Middle America have noticed this radicalism and have a sickening feeling the game is rigged. That’s why most say in surveys that unfairness is the core problem facing the US. That’s why most like the idea of taxing millionaires

At the same time, the Occupy movement pushed Obama into the arms of populism. Billionaire Warren Buffett provided cover with business. And thanks to an intransigent GOP, Obama has useful partisan resistance against which to draw sharp contrasts between himself and the Big Boss Party.

Third Way’s recent recommendation isn’t just out of touch; it’s misplaced. Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney aren’t fighting over just any swing voter. They are fighting for working class voters with middle or lower incomes. 

These are not voters who care about an abstraction such as “opportunity”. That doesn’t mean anything. What they care about are concrete things such as jobs, wages and mortgages. They don’t want handouts or pity. They want a fair shot.

This election year is Obama’s chance to be the president of the people. The country is so far to the right that populism looks radical. Fine. That’s the kind of radicalism we need.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a frequent contributor to the American Prospect, theNew Statesman, Reuters Opinion and the New York Daily News.

Follow him on Twitter: @johnastoehr