September 17 marks the second anniversary of the Occupy movement. When that movement is mentioned at all in Washington, which is rarely, the tone is dismissive. It didn't have coherent goals, someone will say. It needed an electoral strategy, somebody else will add. No wonder it didn't last.
That's getting it backwards. The Occupy movement wasn't the foundation for change, it was the reflection of a deeper desire for it. It was the effect, not the cause, and it won't disappear because of wishful thinking.
Occupy was the product of a deep-seated yearning for economic justice, equality of opportunity, and a return to the kind of economy that lifted people out of poverty and spawned a large and prosperous middle class. It was the fruit of widespread and intense anger at Wall Street and Corporate America, and against those in the political class who helped them hijack the economy. Those sentiments are very much alive in the American political process.
If you don't believe that, just ask Larry Summers.
The (real) revolution is not a Tea Party.
It's not surprising that Republicans don't understand. The Tea Party was their well-funded project to channel populist anger, and it led to the clueless spectacle of information-starved Americans marching to eliminate their own Social Security and Medicare. But the Tea Party has become a Frankenstein's monster that threatens its creators in the GOP establishment.
The Republicans' mistake was spiritual and moral. They chose to channel public rage, and only rage, without reaching out to people's idealism as well. They acted out of self-interest and therefore, perhaps inevitably, triggered only selfish instincts. Now they can't control the anger they've spawned.
As the old, supposedly Chinese adage goes: He who rides the tiger cannot dismount. The GOP is stuck with its Tea Party, making it all but impossible for them to govern -- even on behalf of its wealthy paymasters.
(Not) dancing with the ones who brought them
The White House, on the other hand, should've known better. It, and the party which it leads, were stuck in the polling doldrums before Occupy came along. The President and party leaders were trying to sell the economic foolishness of Simpson-Bowles austerity and the polling-booth poison of Social Security cuts until Occupy came along. The excitement spawned by the movement, along with the new economic vocabulary it generated, gave them a new direction and new momentum.
They were smart enough to seize it all -- the moment, the movement, and the language. They rode that wave of economic populism into electoral victory, recapturing the White House and the Senate and winning 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives than Republicans did. (The Republicans kept the House anyway, thanks to gerrymandering.)
But the administration drifted after the election, diluting the message of economic populism and failing to deliver either bold economic proposals or aggressive enforcement against criminal Wall Street banks.
Then, in a gesture of stunning tone-deafness, the White House began floating the idea of nominating Summers to head the Federal Reserve. That sent exactly the wrong message to the American people, and to the Democratic base in particular.
The trouble with Larry
Summers symbolized the wrongheaded thinking, indifference to public suffering, and greedy revolving-door cynicism of the triangulating and economically right-leaning Clinton Democrats. He was almost a caricature of the government bureaucrat as self-centered insider. And he was a leader in the fight to implement the failed notions of deregulation and bank consolidation which led to the financial crisis of 2008.
A series of progressive groups, including our own Campaign for America's Future, quickly mobilized against the Summers nomination. A core contingent of progressive Senators on the Senate Banking Committee publicly declared they would not vote to confirm him. The commentariat exploded with criticisms of the choice. More than 350 economists signed a letter of opposition and supported Fed vice chair Janet Yellen instead.
This weekend Summers acknowledged that he didn't have the votes, withdrawing his name from consideration.
What the public wants
None of this should have been a surprise. Anybody who was paying attention to the public mood would know that it was as hostile to Wall Street as ever. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll (available here) shows that, by a margin of two to one, Americans believe it was the wrong decision to bail out the banks. Nearly one-third of the public wants the big banks broken up, twice the number of those who oppose such a move.
And in a telling statistic for the White House, more than half of those polled want the government to do more to prosecute bankers for their wrongdoing.
Polls also show that Americans overwhelmingly want Social Security benefits increased, despite bipartisan Washington talk of cutting them, and that jobs and the economy are the public's highest priority.
The White House has improved its public communication on the economy somewhat, especially with the President's renewed emphasis on jobs and the middle class. But the rhetoric hasn't been matched with equally bold proposals.
Nor have the president and other Democrats explained what we now know: That the stimulus should have been larger (thanks in large part to Summers, it wasn't). That we've cut spending, and the federal deficit, too quickly. And that Republicans have obstructed the kind of government spending the economy needs and the public wants.
The worst-timed victory lap ever?
This week the administration is reacting to another anniversary. It's been five years since the economic crisis began. Unfortunately the White House hasn't gotten the message yet. Its report on the government response to the 2008 crisis, issued this week, consists almost entirely of triumphal pronouncements that will ring false to millions of suffering Americans. There is only one small paragraph in the entire 49-page document devoted to the theme of "there is still work to do."
For 22 million Americans in need of full-time work, for the 90 percent of Americans frozen out of our post-crisis "recovery," the only work that really matters is the work still to be done. They'll need more than celebratory words to get their lives back, and more than a paragraph's worth of attention from our nation's leaders.
Presidential economic advisor Gene Sperling struck a welcome combative tone on a phone call with reporters Sunday regarding Republican plans to use the debt ceiling limit as the opportunity for more fiscal hostage-taking.
"The President is not going to negotiate over whether we should be paying our bills," Sperling said. "No (one) should ever consider it an acceptable form of debate ... to threaten the default of the government of the United States for the first time, specifically to get their way on a budget or policy issue."
That aggressive posture is overdue, and the change in tone is welcome. But this kind of fire has been absent from both Sperling's comments and the president's regarding the unfinished work of restoring the American economy.
What the public still wants
The president's poll numbers are slipping again, falling to lows not seen since the Occupy movement came along to give him a new political life. Only 45 percent of the electorate like the way he's handling the economy, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, while 51 percent disapprove.
More than 80 percent of voters disapprove of Congress, according to the same poll. Follow Occupy's rhetoric and you win approval from most voters. Follow the Tea Party's and you're all but universally despised.
So, which movement is closer to the pulse of the American people?
The White House hasn't learned the lesson of the Occupy movement: The American people want an economy that works for everyone. The public understands that the "1 percent" have been diverting our nation's wealth from the "99 percent." Occupy placed both terms in the national lexicon. And people know that too little has been done to redress the imbalance.
The desire for change still walks this land. It can be seen in the impromptu strikes and actions taken by fast-food workers and Walmart employees. It can be found in New York City's repudiation of Michael Bloomberg's elitist economic policies and its embrace of economist populist Bill De Blasio. And as we write these words, Democratic ex-banker Bill Daley is withdrawing from the Illinois governor's race after being hammered by the Republican incumbent over his Wall Street ties.
The Occupy movement isn't dead. It lives on in the political will of the American people. They want a president and a party that will represent the 99 percent, not the 1 percent who write campaign checks and give them cushy post-government jobs. Summers' failure was their latest memo to our leaders in Washington, and here's what it said:
If you won't fight for us, we'll find somebody who will.