Friday Talking Points [70] -- Ride The Populist Wave!

For all the ink spilled over President Barack Obama's appearance on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, I have to wonder... does anyone remember Richard Nixon's ground-breaking appearance on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In?

I have to admit, I'm too young to have personal memories of it, but during the 1968 presidential race, Dick Nixon appeared on the most popular comedy show of the day (akin to Saturday Night Live with the original cast, in the 1970s) and he memorably uttered the show's catch-phrase: "Sock it to me."

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can now view this for yourself, should you so desire. But I refuse to get into a debate over what "Sock it to me" meant, except to note that the Volkswagen Beetle I was being driven around in at this point in time had a bumper sticker on it with the same phrase prominently displayed. You'll have to ask my parents what it meant, in other words.

Ahem. Anyway, I didn't really have a point with that, other than to interject some historical perspective.

Purists will insist that Nixon did his Laugh-In thing during a campaign, much like Bill Clinton blowing a sax on Arsenio Hall's show. Even Clinton, though, wasn't actually president at that point.

But in today's media-news-fo-tainment society, it's hard to really get concerned about President Barack Obama choosing The Tonight Show as a vehicle to get his message out to the American people. In other words, I see him as a pioneer and not some sort of frivolous gadfly (as the Republicans would dearly love for America to have seen him).

Too bad for them he was so good.

But that's not what we're going to discuss today. Because while it was indeed an impressive experience -- from hard financial sector details to picking his own bracket for the NCAA basketball finals (which should boost his approval among the sports-loving sector of the public) -- there's an even bigger phenomenon going on in this country, one that Obama himself addressed in rather forceful language last night.

Because, while I do support Obama, I have to honestly admit that he's been a reluctant populist at best, having watched him over the past two years of campaigning, and (sadly) over the past two months of governing. He always seems to have to be pushed into a populist stance. This was understandable, because every time he inched over a little bit, Republicans would cry "class warfare!" (at least, until they started voting en masse for 90 percent taxes on errant bankers, that is).

Barack Obama himself defines the "middle class" as making up to a quarter-million dollars per year. He lobbied Congress to relax its proposed rules on executive compensation (not just bonuses) in his stimulus package (at the time, I said "the loopholes in [Obama's] plan are so gigantic you could fly a corporate jet through them. Heck, you could do barrel rolls in a corporate jet through them."). And, from what Senator Chris Dodd now says, he also lobbied to keep the bonuses flowing on Wall Street, as well. On the campaign trail, he usually had to be (kind of) backed up against a wall before he would really take any sort of strong stance on what historians would generally call "populist" positions.

Like I said, I support the guy, but I've never seen him as some sort of out-in-front populist, except maybe in his soaring (and non-detailed) rhetoric. When Obama gives a speech, he certainly does leave what I would call a "populist impression" afterwards. But when you get down to details, it all seems to get a bit fuzzy, at least in the issues I have paid attention to. Which is why I call him a "reluctant populist" at best.

But that was out on the campaign trail. Now, he is our president. His words have become a call to action rather than just partisan rhetoric on the stump. That is a big difference. Rather than "out on the stump," Obama is now talking to the American people from the presidential (thank-you, Teddy Roosevelt) "bully pulpit."

And I don't know about you, but Obama's performance on Leno was a heck of a lot more populist than anything I've ever heard him say before. On issue after issue, he seems not to be tacking to "the left" or (shudder) "the right, " but instead towards "the people" and away from "the elites." This is one definition (there are many) of populism itself. And that's just fine with me, personally.

The question that remains is whether Obama will continue to do so (perhaps even moving in a more populist direction than he outlined last night), or whether he will back off if he faces opposition in Congress (by "centrists" in his own party, even) to his call to populism. If public opinion backs Obama in such a showdown, this will only serve to strengthen his position politically. And weaken the entrenched Washington position (whether Democratic or Republican).

Which could terrify a lot of officeholders facing the inevitable re-election battles next year.

Consider, for a moment: the AIG bonus 90 percent tax which just passed the House did so with almost half of the Republicans voting for it. The final tally was 85 Republicans for the tax, and 87 against.

Again, just in case you missed that, half the House Republicans voted for a ninety-percent tax rate, the highest income tax rate seen since President Eisenhower, which totally and completely goes against every single thing the Republican Party has been preaching for the past three decades on taxes -- and (needless to say) nobody in the mainstream television media bothered to point out this massive, earth-shaking, heavens-realigning contradiction between post-Reagan Republican orthodox dogma, and what just happened in the House.

Those are some terrified representatives. Terrified of the wrath of their own constituents.

And yet, I must have missed the news stories about such wonderful bipartisan cooperation in Congress. I guess it didn't fit into their inane theory of the day, or something. I must have missed these headlines: "House Republicans Renounce Reaganism", "Half Of House GOP Votes For Most Massive Tax Increase Since WWII", "Confiscatory Taxes Passed By Over Two-Thirds Vote With Help Of Half Of Republican Members", "Republicans Wage Class Warfare", "Republicans Admit The Economic Theory They've Worshipped For Decades Is Complete Horse Manure", or even "Reagan Was Wrong, GOP Says; Let's Tax The Rich."

Somehow, the media decided, that didn't fit into their narrative.

Imagine that.

So it really should come as no surprise that Barack Obama wanted to update the bully pulpit to today's reality, and thought it would be worth his time as leader of our country to appear on a late-night talk show in order to reach not only the politically-savvy, but also the folks that actually watch late-night television. That's not a bad thing in my mind, although some Republicans and Washington talking heads are attempting to make his mere appearance into some sort of political issue ("He should be back in Washington taking care of the country's business!").

But you know what? Obama's ease in stepping up to such modern-day bully pulpits is going to be a continuing source of strength for him throughout his presidency, no matter how much it annoys the heck out of both Republicans and the D.C. chattering class. And, on his debut on this stage, he did an excellent job, I have to say.


Both awards this week are going to "unnamed" individuals or groups. Due to the media's vagueness, we cannot present the awards to individuals until they step up and admit their actions.

I've been pointing out since February that there is a powerful tool at the disposal of congressional Democratic leaders to get some very big ideas enacted into law. It is called "budget reconciliation" and means, in essence, filibuster-proof bills. When bills are sent through this arcane process, they only require a majority vote in the Senate (not 60), because filibusters (or "cloture") cannot be used against them. With Republicans' only remaining party position being: "If Obama's for it, we're against it," the question becomes: "Why not use reconciliation?"

And this week, a group variously described as "House Democrats, in consultation with the White House," or "House Democratic leaders," said that's exactly what they're going to do to get health care reform passed. There will be a period -- until September -- when everyone will give bipartisanship a chance, complete with allowing Senate Republicans the filibuster. If nothing gets passed by that point (as is likely), then Democrats will say "well, we tried being bipartisan, it's not working, it's now time to get something done," and remove the filibuster option from the table.

This is brilliant. It puts a ticking clock on "bipartisanship," and although Republicans will howl (they've already started), Democrats can say "we gave you a chance, but we're tired of your obstructionism and now we need to get this passed," and the American people will most likely agree. We've seen health care reform get shot down in flames before (see: Clinton, Hillary and Bill; circa 1993) and we don't want to see it happen again.

So to the unnamed House Democrats (Nancy Pelosi? I suspect you had something to do with this, eh?) who are laying down this legislative marker, I say congratulations on your Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. If you'll just step into the limelight and take credit, we can send you out your MIDOTW statuettes post haste.


Sigh. While House Democrats have offered a powerful tool to the Senate to leap over Republican obstructionism, the Senate Democrats appear to be frightened of such power.

Senate Democrats have made no decisions about including reconciliation in their version of the budget bill. If they leave it out, as appeared likely, the two chambers would have to resolve the issue in a committee this spring.

There are rumors that a group of eight (or possibly more) "centrist" Democrats are against the idea already. The eight already signed a letter to President Obama which strongly disagreed with using reconciliation for energy policy (the "cap and trade" idea). If they manage to get Harry Reid to bypass the possibility of reconciliation for health care (which I've previously questioned about Reid), then health care reform is likely not going to happen. They know this full well, and need to be publicly called on it.

They should all be asked by an intrepid member of the press: "Given the choice, Senator, of passing health care reform or doing nothing, which would you prefer?" Because that is the true choice here.

So, a bit prematurely perhaps, we are awarding the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week to Senate Democrats working behind the scenes to deny the entire country health care reform, which they appear willing to sacrifice to some Potemkin altar of "bipartisanship." People need to let these senators know (if they ever publicly admit their doings) that out here in the real world getting something done on health care is a lot more important than some phony "bipartisanship" in the Senate which translates into "joining with our Republican colleagues so we can block the president's agenda."

For shame.


Volume 70 (3/20/09)

President Obama has apparently decided to surf the populist wave of anger rising in the country all around him, rather than get swamped by it. This is all to the good. Last night, on
The Tonight Show, he went farther than I expected him to on several issues.

Now is the time to legislate some of these issues, before the American public goes back into a daze of celebrity-worship once again.

Which reminds me, I was watching that well-known political and public affairs television show The Simpsons the other day, and Mayor "Diamond Joe" Quimby said something which gave me a jolt. He referenced a "celebrity resentment tax."

Wow. Now there's a populist idea. Congress seems to agree -- let's pass specific taxes for those who annoy the public the most. AIG bonuses could be just the beginning. How about a 90 percent tax on television news anchors? Or a tax on annoying Hollywood celebrities? Or annoying radio talk show hosts? Or a whopping big tax on lobbyists -- say, 200 percent of their income (the more they "make" the more they'd owe the people in taxes). Gosh, this could get fun!

Ahem. Sorry, when politics crosses over into comedy, we all get a little loopy, I guess.

Anyway, if we can move on from AIG bonuses and concentrate on the bigger picture here, Congress could (for once) respond to some righteous populist anger by enacting some things which the American public would wildly support.

The window of time to do this is wide open. The question is, will Democrats have the political spine to do so?

So, borrowing heavily from Obama's Leno appearance (read the full transcript, if interested), allow me to suggest a few ways to do this.


   Re-regulate Wall Street

This should be first on everyone's list. Coin a new word. Ever since Reagan, the term "de-regulate" has been much in vogue among not only Republicans but a lot of Democrats as well. This is the core of what caused this financial trainwreck. "Letting Wall Street regulate itself" (not surprisingly, to those of us with a brain) didn't turn out so good, did it? So Democrats need to hammer this home -- that they are not merely interested in tar-and-feathering some AIG executives, but that they are much more interested in re-regulating Wall Street from top to bottom. De-regulation is, at this moment in time, indefensible. So press this advantage home, and re-regulate Wall Street while you still have the political momentum to do so.

Obama himself pointed this out last night, quite eloquently:

"But there's a moral and an ethical aspect to this, as well. And I think that's what has gotten everybody so fired up. The main thing -- we're going to do everything we can to see if we can get these bonuses back. But I think the most important thing that we can do is make sure that we put in a bunch of financial regulatory mechanisms to prevent companies like an AIG holding the rest of us hostage. Because that's -- that's the real problem.

"The problem is not just what's happened over the last six months. The problem is what was happening for years, where people were able to take huge, excessive risks with other people's money, putting the entire financial system at risk -- and there were no checks, there were no balances, there was nobody overseeing the process.

"And so what we're going to be moving very aggressively on -- even as we try to fix the current mess -- is make sure that before somebody makes a bad bet you say, hold on, you can't do that."


   Regulate credit cards

This one kind of stunned me, because (as I said) I see Obama as a somewhat-reluctant populist. But last night he actually proposed taking on the credit card industry.

Politicians in Washington really do not have much concept of how enormous this issue is to average Americans. Also, the politicians are used to taking a lot of bribes... oh, excuse me, "campaign contributions" from banks and credit card companies. Politicians from both sides of the aisle, I should point out. But credit card interest rates are completely out of control. Taking a populist stance on this issue (this took me five seconds to come up with: "cap interest rates at 15 percent, and fix all rates like other loans so that the rate you sign up for is the rate you pay, forever.") would be so popular that politicians wouldn't even need to be driven around any more because of the throngs of people willing to carry them on their shoulders while wildly cheering.

OK, I exaggerate. But not by much. When you talk about "Wall Street" and financial mumbo-jumbo like "credit default swaps" average Americans tune out. When you talk about credit cards, they listen. Just about everybody's got a credit card (which, incidentally, is part of the problem). Anyway, here is Obama on the subject:

"Here's the dirty little secret, though. Most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal. And that is a sign of how much we've got to change our laws -- right? We were talking earlier about credit cards, and it's legal to charge somebody 30 percent on their credit card, and charge fees and so forth that people don't always know what they're getting into. So the answer is to deal with those laws in a way that gives the average consumer a break.

"When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there's a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there's no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you're going to be protected.

"So this is -- the need for getting back to some common sense regulations -- there's nothing wrong with innovation in the financial markets. We want people to be successful; we want people to be able to make a profit. Banks are critical to our economy and we want credit to flow again. But we just want to make sure that there's enough regulatory common sense in place that ordinary Americans aren't taken advantage of, and taxpayers, after the fact, aren't taken advantage of."


   Make all tuition deductible

Those last two were rather long, so here is one that is short and sweet: make all tuition tax-deductible for everyone. Any money you pay for education is not income, it is tax-free.

"We propose a gigantic tax cut for the American family which will strengthen us as a nation. Democrats think any money spent to educate a member of your family should not be taxed at all. Period."


   Tax the rich

OK, don't call it that. Bad framing, I admit. How about, instead, the "millionaires' tax"?

Obama, last night said: "...that, I think, speaks to a broader culture that existed on Wall Street, where I think people just had this general attitude of entitlement, where, we must be the best and the brightest, we deserve $10 million or $50 million or $100 million dollar payouts..."

But the problem is, even with Obama raising taxes on people making over $250,000 per year (raising them less than five percent, not exactly class warfare) the people who make $10 million or $100 million will be paying the same tax rate as the doctor who makes $300,000. The graduated income tax doesn't have a bracket (currently, that is, as it used to) for the ultra-ultra-wealthy. And it should.

"I think anyone who makes more than a million dollars a year -- from whatever source -- should pay a higher tax rate than someone who makes less than a million dollars. The era of big greed is over, and I think our tax rates need to reflect this by creating a tax rate which will not kick in unless you are not only a millionaire, but actually making over one million dollars per year. I think the middle class has funded these people's obscene wealth long enough, and I think it's about time for them to pay their fair share to rebuild our country."


   Abolish the payroll tax

There's an interesting article in The New Yorker this week which proposes completely abolishing the payroll tax on workers. Sounds good to me.

But it might be better politically if it were phased in, by starting with jobs that are historically underpaid and understaffed for their relative importance to society.

"I am proposing that we abolish the payroll tax on the following groups of workers in America: teachers, policemen, nurses, firefighters, airport security screeners, and garbage collectors. In the future, we may add other professions to this list. But I think these people deserve a raise in their take-home pay and the new millionaires' tax will make up for the lost revenue to give these people their full Social Security benefits when they retire. I think these people are some of the hardest working -- and least appreciated -- Americans out there, and I think they deserve a break."


   Flood the airwaves with ads

For a period of about five or six months, you simply could not turn on a television without seeing an ad which told you to upgrade to digital or you were going to lose your signal. There was such a flood of ads that they became impossible to miss.

So, while this is not really a talking point per se, it is a suggestion for how to inform the public about changes being made to the financial system. President Obama has announced plans for mortgage reform and small business loan reform in the past few weeks. So why not include some money in there to advertise the new programs' availability?

It would inform those affected (mortgage holders, or small business owners) of what has changed, and how they could go about taking advantage of the new changes. And it would also let the rest of the country know that something is being done, meaning it would be an educational experience for all. I'm not saying make it a political exercise, just show the people that Washington is trying something new, and here's how to apply for it if it affects you.

"I propose taking a very small percentage of the money in the (whatever subject) bill and allocating it for advertising the availability of this plan to the public. If we approve money but nobody knows how to apply for it, then it won't do any good. So let's inform the American people of the new plan by an advertising campaign, which will speed the whole process up and disseminate the information applicants need in a timely and effective manner."


   Talk to the American people without a filter

President Obama is already being criticized for appearing on a late-night talk show, instead of "being back in Washington fixing the economy."

Obama himself has already called this hogwash. He has already shown a better grasp of how to use the bully pulpit than any president since The Great Communicator himself (pause, for Republicans to genuflect), Ronald Reagan.

Whenever Obama is criticized for doing so, he needs to throw it right back in the media's face, with force, the same way Reagan used to do. So far, Obama has shown he can do this, but really any Democrat should be able to make the point as well.

"Barack Obama is a master at going over the heads of both the inside-the-Beltway crowd and the media -- and talking directly to the American people. The people know this, President Obama knows this, and the people respect him for doing so. The only ones who don't appear to be glad that the president can talk directly to the American people are the media themselves, who are used to their job as America's 'filter.' But Obama doesn't need this filter. He is quite capable of talking to the American people in a respectful and adult fashion without the use of this filter. And as for Republicans who are complaining that Obama is somehow 'doing too much,' I would ask, what is he supposed to do? Go on vacation for six weeks in the middle of a crisis? Sorry, but those days are over."


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground