The Presidential Race, Occupied

By Ezra Silk

A few months ago, YES! Magazine published a collection of essays on Occupy called “This Changes Everything.”

When I first saw the collection at a bookstore in Portland, I was taken aback by the boldness of the YES! editors’ claim. It seemed a bit premature.

But this position has apparently become quite popular in recent weeks. Perusing the press and the Internet over the past two days, there seems to be a general sentiment that Occupy has altered the course of American history.

When Obama delivered the Teddy Roosevelt address in early December, many commentators noted the obvious thematic parallels between the speech and the message(s) of the Occupy protests.

Now, following the inequality-themed State of the Union, it is abundantly clear that the Obama team has gone all in on an Occupy-lite style re-election campaign.

The lead article in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, “Obama’s speech echoes Occupy movement themes,” acknowledges as much. On Democracy Now yesterday, Jared Bernstein, Obama’s former economic advisor, said that Occupy “had a lot do with” the tone of Obama’s State of the Union speech:

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jared Bernstein, how much do you think, if at all, the Occupy Wall Street movement had to do with the tone that the President struck last night?

JARED BERNSTEIN: Well, it’s a great question. I think they had a lot to do with it. I mean, I’ve been talking about these issues—I mean, they’re called populist now. Frankly, I think they’re just basic fairness. I don’t know why it’s populist to argue that middle-class people should pay a fair tax rate and one that’s certainly no higher than that paid by millionaires and billionaires, or for that matter, that economic growth should not be a spectator sport for people in the middle class. So, you know, nowadays, that’s populism or even class warfare. No, I’ve been talking about these issues for three decades and haven’t broken through in the way that Occupy Wall Street did in a matter of months. So I give them a ton of credit for doing what it is, by the way, that they will tell you they set out to do, which is to engage the nation in a conversation about these issues.

The Occupy-inspired rhetorical stampede to the left — whether by Obama, Newt Gingrich, or many establishment media outlets — has left Mitt Romney, who has said that economic inequality should only be discussed in “quiet rooms,” looking pathetically out of touch. This has led some commentators to suggest that the collective cultural impact of the protests has potentially crippled Romney.

Take Steve Erickson’s Jan. 23 article for The American Prospect, “Atlas Slugged.” The subtitle states that, “Mitt Romney’s loss in South Carolina betrays a party struggling to defend the 1 percent in the post-Occupy Wall Street era.”

But Romney’s problem isn’t how much money he has. His problem is how he made it, how he’s kept it, and how come he won’t talk about it. If Romney’s campaign for the presidency should collapse, the beginning of its end will not have been January 21, 2012 [the date of Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina], but September 17, 2011. That’s the day when, in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, someone held up a sign that read “WE ARE THE 99%”—the kind of math that’s foreign to those on the other side of the income divide, who reserve such percentages for things more profitable than sociology. In itself, the electorate doesn’t begrudge a president his bank account, but Romney, who is reportedly worth a quarter of a billion dollars, is rich even by the standard of Kennedys. As depicted so vividly in the notorious photo of the candidate as a young man surrounded by fellow sharkettes grinning at the camera with fistfuls of currency, Romney has become the incarnation of those who made their fortunes stripping others of smaller and more vulnerable nest eggs.

In November, when I was driving through the South, I spoke to a college friend who works at a venture capital fund in Manhattan. He told me that his boss, a hardcore conservative, was deeply suspicious of the protests, and believed that Obama had engineered them in order to garner support for his re-election campaign. At the time, this notion struck me as preposterous.

Although this theory still strikes me as deeply paranoid and completely false, the logic of it makes more and more sense. Three months ago, there was great concern that the protesters would generate an ill-fated third party bid and siphon off Democratic votes in the 2012 election, leading to a Republican victory. It was clear that many of the protesters were alienated Obama voters who had lost all faith in the President and the Democratic Party.

But Obama has quite skillfully taken advantage of this cultural moment, making himself once again politically relevant by rhetorically addressing the most resonant concerns of the Occupiers. He is executing an incredibly delicate balancing act between his numerous financial industry backers and his liberal base, many of whom are quite sympathetic to the Wall Street-loathing Occupiers. The appointment of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, progressive hero-of-the-moment and supposed enemy of the banks, to the head of the newly-formed Mortgage Crisis Unit, will test this very fragile coalition.

For the moment, the Occupy protests seem to have boosted Obama.  

Economist John Quiggin’s analysis of the current political moment is reminiscent of Erickson’s:

The endless EU vs US debate rolls on, but now with an odd twist. Although the objective facts about economic inequality, immobility and so on are far worse in the US than the EU, the political situation seems more promising. (I’m not talking primarily about electoral politics but about the nature of public debate.)

In the EU, the right has succeeded in taking a crisis caused primarily by banks (including the central bank, and bank regulators) and blaming it on government profligacy, which is then being used to push through yet more of the neoliberal policies that caused the crisis. And, as we’ve just seen, formerly social democratic parties like New Labour in the UK, are pushing the same line.

By contrast the success of Occupy Wall Street ha[s] changed the US debate, in ways that I think will be hard to reverse. Once the Overton window shifted enough to allow inequality and social immobility to be mentioned, the weight of evidence has been overwhelming…

It remains to be seen how this will play out electorally, but there are at least some promising signs. Eight months ago, the situation in the US, seemed if anything even worse than in Europe. Obama seemed determined to capitulate to the Repubs, with the support of the entire centrist establishment, still committed to the idea of bipartisanship. Political discussion was dominated by the claims of the Tea Party, essentially identical to those of the European Austerians. The debt-ceiling debacle, the success of Occupy Wall Street and the recent Romney revelations have changed that. First, the fact that the Repubs are extreme reactionaries, uninterested in any kind of bipartisan compromise, has finally sunk in to all but the most obtuse centrists.[1] Second, the point that the rich play by different rules from the rest of us has been made glaringly obvious.[2]

Given the weakness of the economy, and the absence of any real action from the Administration between the initial stimulus and last year’s Jobs Plan, Obama’s re-election can’t be taken for granted. But it’s looking increasingly likely, and his SOTU speech will hopefully make commitments that will be hard to retract after November.

The cultural impact of the debt ceiling deal should not be forgotten. I have felt for months now that there was a direct link between the debt ceiling fiasco and Occupy. While the Arab Spring and the Internet have been correctly identified as contributing factors to the sudden transformation of Occupy Wall Street into a mass protest movement, this devastating episode in American history has not.

July 2011 was a very bleak moment. Take a look at the lede of this July 31 New York Times editorial for a flashback. The editorial was entitled, “To Escape Chaos, A Terrible Deal.”

There is little to like about the tentative agreement between Congressional leaders and the White House except that it happened at all. The deal would avert a catastrophic government default, immediately and probably through the end of 2012. The rest of it is a nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists. It will hurt programs for the middle class and poor, and hinder an economic recovery.

In late August, pollster Bill McInturff released a report, stating that the debt ceiling episode caused a sudden and massive swing in American public opinion.

The debt ceiling negotiation is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government. It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both, at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded…

The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.

The collapse of confidence in government has substantially eroded already weak consumer confidence. Today’s consumer confidence rating is the fourth lowest since 1952.

Make no mistake: This collapse of economic confidence is not an independent event driven only by economic reality. This sharp a drop in consumer confidence is a direct consequence of the lack of confidence in our political system and its leaders.

As our firm conducted focus groups over the last two weeks, the change in tone in the wake of the debt ceiling negotiation was striking.

We are entering a new phase of the American political dialogue that has been irrevocably shifted in a way that will prove difficult to predict.

Historically, though, this type of deep voter anger, unease, and economic pessimism leads to unstable and unpredictable political outcomes…

Public Opinion Strategies partners and staff have conducted more than 4,500 focus groups over the past twenty years. While customarily you might believe this means “we’ve heard it all,” this is certainly not true for what we have been hearing over the past two weeks in our focus groups. The anger is sharper, combined with a sense the economy is not going to be fixed soon. People report a deep sense of gloom about the economy. The absence of hope the economy might get better drives the sense of despair they are feeling about what is ahead.

The debt ceiling deal was the last major domestic political event before Occupy Wall Street began on Sept. 17.

I drove down to the first day of Occupy for a variety of reasons. I was reading Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, an extremely critical look at the Obama administration. The Arab Spring was an inspiration. The Adbusters ad spoke to my understanding of the deep problems facing the American system.

But despair over the debt ceiling deal was a huge factor.

Six months later, the gloom of that period, so deep and seemingly intractable, appears to have lifted.

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