Time To Walk The Talk, Mr. President

This past weekend, the Washington Post ran a piece by Peter Wallsten which informed readers that Obama plans to turn anti-Wall Street anger on Mitt Romney, Republicans. In it, we learn that

President Obama and his team have decided to turn public anger at Wall Street into a central tenet of their reelection strategy.

and also that

Obama aides point to recent surveys that show anger at Wall Street spanning ideologies, including a new Washington Post-ABC News poll in which 68 percent of independents and 60 percent of Republicans say they have unfavorable impressions of the big financial institutions.

The article also buries the lede somewhat, by relegating the following information to the sixth paragraph:

But the strategy of channeling anti-Wall Street anger carries risks. Many of Obama’s senior advisers have ties to the financial industry — a point that makes Occupy protesters wary of the president and his party.

(emphasis added)

No kidding it carries risks. And that doesn’t even get into the cozy fundraising relationship President Obama has always enjoyed with the titans of Wall Street. Yes, Wall Street also donates to the Republicans…but Obama’s hands, as well as those of many top Democrats are far from clean when it comes to accepting the financial industry’s largesse. That’s potentially a problem, as the Wallsten piece rather drily soft-pedals.

But, whatever the risks, it’s pretty clear that Team Obama has indeed decided to try to tap into the anger and frustration still roiling the country three full years after the fiscal crisis which spawned it, and use it to their advantage to get re-elected, especially if – as they assume is most likely – their opponent next year turns out to be ex-corporate raider Willard “Mitt” Romney. The revelation of this new campaign strategy on the part of the Obama administration caused some observers like Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith to mordantly quote an old saying: “A politician is someone who gets in front of a mob and tries to call it a parade.”

Before I go on, let me pause for a moment and repeat something I’ve said before: I remain one hundred percent in agreement with the rather crude formulation of a famous California politician of yore, Jesse Unruh: “If you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and vote against ‘em anyway, you don’t belong in the Legislature.” In fact, I’d argue that probably goes double for the White House: Presidential candidates, unless they come to their campaigns very, very rich already and can thus self-finance, have little choice in modern America except to turn to the largesse of deep-pocketed donors. But that shouldn’t – and doesn’t – mean that if you’re a politician, taking money from someone or some group means they own you. It’s just that in practice, that’s often how it seems to work out. And these days, in the wake of Citizens United, that’s never been more true.

In 2008, the Obama campaign pulled in a record amount of donations – both in number and in overall totals – from individual small donors. But somewhat overlooked in all the hoopla about the “first truly people-powered candidacy for the Presidency” was the simple fact that he also took nearly equal amounts from high-dollar, larger donors. In fact, the “Securities and Investment” sector (that’d be Wall Street, mostly) was the third-largest sector of donors in the 2008 campaign (behind only retired people and lawyers), and a disproportionate share of their giving went to Obama over the GOP candidate, McCain. I have, in the past, heard many Obama fans suggest that it matters not whether many large-dollar Wall Street donors happen to be Democrats (or at least give to Democrats). Based on the Unruh theory above, they argue, Obama can’t be considered “bought” by Wall Street or anyone else. And I’d like nothing more than to believe it’s not only possible, but true.

However, today, POLITICO published one of their usual status quo-backstopping pieces, this time a three-page warning to the President, consisting of quotes from various Wall Street swells who tut-tuttingly warn the President and his advisors that they “can’t have it both ways.” By this (the article made quite sure readers understood), they mean: Obama shouldn’t expect to continue to bang the drum of populist anger at Wall Street for his own political gain and also expect to simultaneously bring in the kind of mad cash he’s come to expect from a wide cross-section of the well-heeled of Wall Street. It’s a warning shot across Obama’s bow, in essence: lay off the pitchforks and torches rhetoric, dude, or no more sweet, sweet bakshish for you!

Sharp-eyed political observer Charles Pierce (author of “Idiot America”) read this POLITICO piece and immediately realized what this call to heel by Wall Street to Obama can and should be used as: an opportunity to finally and publicly sever those cozy ties which the President even now tries to maintain while still echoing the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street. Pierce gets right to the heart of the matter, with some brilliant observation and equally trenchant advice for Mr. Obama:

Read that story from Politico closely. What these various whiny hyenas are saying, quite clearly, is that they bought both halves of the American political process fair and square, and that both sides of the American political process better damned well stay bought. This isn’t even the first time this week that someone from the Jean Lafitte School of High Finance has made this point. It is a bald assertion of the rights of oligarchy in the face of rising popular outrage. The only way it would be clearer is if somebody built a Bastille.

And that’s your opportunity, Mr. President. Cut your ties with these people. Give back the money you’ve collected from the financial-services industry. That’ll hurt, but you’ve been saying since the middle of 2007 that the future is in small donors. Prove that now. Rubber, meet road.

And then get out there and talk about why you’re doing it. The billionaires of the financial-services industry are now plainly saying that the self-governing American republic belongs to them because they paid for the privilege. (All you Tea Party devotees of the sacred Constitution can join in here any time, by the way.) Tell the Department of Justice to begin the discovery process in 100 different directions. Elicit the moment. Revel in it. Mock their pretensions. Ridicule their self-image. Ask all your Republican challengers if they accept the premise that politics is just another M&A break-up scam, and the Constitution nothing more than a collateralized debt obligation. Elicit every ounce of their hatred and welcome it. Show them who really owns the power before you lose this golden chance to do so. This is an easy one. It’s laying right there on the street in front of you. Pick it up and run.

Amen. Because right now, the 99% movement which is growing day by day that you’re trying to tap into, Mr. President, is a bit skeptical of you, because of your installation of guys like Summers and Geithner and your re-nomination of Ben Bernanke. Also because of your willingness to take substantial donations from the financial sector. They worry that such heavy donations can’t possibly help but affect your view of what should be done about Too Big to Fail and the CFPB and support for a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, etc. You want to lead this parade? Then seize the moment…because it’s not going to come around again. Occupy Wall Street is in its infancy, and many people are rightly sort of hanging back to see if it really IS just a bunch of patchouli-scented hippies who’ll dissipate after a few nights of low-30s temperatures in the sleeping bags, or whether it’s the start of a genuine populist uprising. In two or three months, we’ll be that much further into the campaign, meaning your strategies will have to be more formalized than they are now, and – more importantly – OWS will no longer be so much the newborn it still is today. I don’t think OWS will ever be able to be folded neatly into one arm of the re-elect Obama 2012 campaign…but you still have a genuine chance to make common purpose with these brave 99%ers. They’re skeptical, but if you repudiate Wall Street in full, not just with well-honed speeches which nevertheless try to “walk the fine line of sympathizing with the protesters without vilifying bankers,” as the POLITICO piece observed, you can win the 99%’s support. FDR did, after all.

And 99% is quite a respectable percentage to have on your side going in to an election year, isn’t it? Those folks from the 1% sure throw great parties, all right, and they’ve been good up to now about coming across with the cash when you needed it. But as POLITICO clearly points out: the continuation of that money flow isn’t a gimme: they expect something back for it, and both you and we are hearing right now about one of the things they expect from you in return. The 99% down in Zucotti Park may be a lot of things – jobless, worried about their own and their friends’ and loved ones’ financial futures – but one thing they’re not is stupid. As Charles Pierce observed quite pointedly, you appear to have yourself a choice coming up pretty much immediately: side with POLITICO’s Wall Street sources for that article, or side with the other 99%. The banksters appear to have made it quite clear you can’t have it both ways.

So…Which Side Are You On, Mr. President?