By Chrystia Freeland, Globe and Mail, December 9, 2011
All the doubting Thomases who wondered whether Occupy Wall Street would have a lasting political impact got their answer this week in Osawatomie, Kan. That’s where President Barack Obama travelled to deliver a speech that is being billed as the mission statement for his 2012 re-election campaign.
He chose that town of fewer than 5,000 people, 80 kilometres southwest of Kansas City, for its historical resonance – it is where Theodore Roosevelt journeyed just over a century earlier to give his seminal “New Nationalism” address.
But Zuccotti Park in New York, the informal epicentre of the leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement, served as an equally important, albeit less explicit, inspiration. The movement’s accomplishment is to have legitimized discussion of rising income inequality in the United States – Mr. Obama described it as “the defining issue of our time.” That is a landmark declaration.
In recent decades, the participants in the national political discourse have been queasy about addressing issues of class and distribution directly. One of the intellectual victories of the Reagan Revolution was to make it feel practically un-American to talk about how the pie was divided. The culturally acceptable, win-win question to ask was how to make that pie grow.
Mr. Obama’s speech represents an important shift for another reason. As recently as last summer, when the headline battle was over the debt ceiling, the issue driving the political debate was government spending and how to cut it. But today, thanks in great part to Occupy Wall Street, talking explicitly about the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent is not just okay, it seems to be a way a man presiding over an economy with 8.6 per cent unemployment thinks he can be re-elected.
On the left, the preferred culprit for income inequality is political – the argument that the 1 per cent have amassed their fortunes by capturing the political process and thereby securing lower taxes and more favourable, generally weaker, regulation.
But as Mr. Obama sees it, the big drivers are the twin revolutions reshaping the world economy – globalization and new technology.
He compared the creative destruction of today’s economic transformation with the Industrial Revolution. The “massive inequality and exploitation” of that transformation spurred Roosevelt to action, just as income inequality today should be at the top of the national agenda.
Framing the woes of the 99 per cent as the consequence of a massive economic transformation was a brave political choice. Pinning it all on the banksters, as they were called by the left during the Great Depression, would make for more powerful rhetoric and delight the Democratic base. Moreover, the potential downside of alienating Wall Street is something this White House has done already.
But Mr. Obama’s speech understated two facts.
The first is the grim economic reality that the hollowing out of the U.S. middle class will be very hard to reverse. One reason the bankster explanation is so appealing is that it has a simple remedy – raise taxes and tighten regulation. But if you believe, as Mr. Obama does, that a larger and largely welcome economic transition is also at work, figuring out how to rescue its victims becomes a more daunting challenge.
To understand the scale of the problems the Western middle class faces, consider how it looked to Indian business leaders I recently spoke with in Mumbai. S. Gopalakrishnan, co-chairman of Infosys, the pioneering Indian outsourcing company, told me bluntly that the per-capita consumption of the Western middle class would have to decline as the developed and developing worlds “meet somewhere in the middle.”
The second consequence of Mr. Obama’s chosen explanation is political. As is his wont, he took great pains to unite rather than divide: “Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1 per cent values or 99 per cent values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.”
But it might not be quite that easy. He shared the jaw-dropping facts that the average annual income of the top one-100th of the 1 per cent is $27-million, and that the typical CEO makes 110 times more than his typical worker. Mr. Obama wants to believe that “all will benefit” from the vision of America he articulated. But if the problem you are trying to fix is a winner-take-all society, it may take more than rousing rhetoric to persuade the winners to back your plan.
Banksters are attempting the winner-takes-all final victory in their own self-interest. Republicans and Tea Partiers, and Harper neo-cons in Canada are attempting to side with the 1%, or if they can, the top one-100th of the 1%.
The rest of us, finally, have a leader who knows and understands that his political future, and our's, are intimately and inextricably linked to a ballot box in November 2012.
Borrowing from the Occupy Movement, and from Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican President, as Obama has done so often, is not only historic and spirit-lifting. It makes perfect political sense.
Running against either Romney or Gingrich (and Calistta his wife, who has risen to the top of the pyramid of his campaign bosses) means that Obama will have to find more than a single bullet of both rhetoric and policy, as well as achievements, by which to bring an angry, disenchanted and disenfranchised electorate onside.
The Democrats have not been his strongest ally over the last three-plus years, with the Blue Democrats having abandoned his approach too many times. Their's has been a house divided, and the Republicans are hoping to seize on that with their united "against taxes and government" approach.
In a libertine country, where guns count more than votes, and dollars more than jobs, and narcissism more than agape or empathy or compassion, and conservative ideology trumps equality, this first black president has taken the gloves off, finally, in his campaign to "save the middle class" from complete extinction.
With Europe having drawn a new treaty, excluding Britain from the fiscal union that includes penalties for spending excesses, and with Obama's numbers dipping to even or below those of his Republican opponents, the world will be watching with more than mere academic interest in the waves of both rhetoric and passion that will sweep over the continent in the next eleven months.
And we will be watching with our self-interest at stake.
This election, unlike many others, is a watershed moment for the American people to push back against a tsunami of ideology that seeks to turn the wealthiest country in the world into a virtual and a literal "gated community" excluding hundreds of millions of ordinary, and mostly under-deployed, educated and under-utilized, professional and under-valued workers, both men and women trying to raise a family, send their kids to college and create a more equitable country, against the growing force, almost like gravity, of a "narcissistic monster" at the top.
We all know that the only ethical route is to defeat the "right" and to restore some balance.
We also know that money, and not ethics, plays too large a hand in this brink-like poker game.
And we are counting on Obama, and all the forces he can and will muster, to bring home the winning run, or the winning basket, or the winning touchdown in the last minutes of what will also be a highly explosive and entertaining piece of political theatre.
Would the Greeks of old not consider this fight for democracy one for the ages?