Now and Then

September 29, 2011

Compare Obama in Colorado this week:

“If asking a millionaire to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher makes me a class warrior, a warrior for the middle class, I will accept that. I’ll wear that as a badge of honor because the only class warfare I’ve seen is the battle that’s been waged against the middle class in this country for a decade now”. (New York Times, September 28, 2011)

and Franklin Roosevelt running for re-election in 1936, speaking at Madison Square Garden:

“For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. … Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent….

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.”

Many commentators have claimed that President Obama finally has his mojo back. But there are important differences between 1936 and 2012. President Roosevelt went on to specify the lies that the Republicans were telling about Social Security pensions and unemployment compensation and to call out the threats of unemployment that came from employers and the crocodile tears shed by Republicans about the poor working man. He had an expectation that details of his message would be received and heard. Also, Roosevelt had a mass movement pushing from the populist left: general strikes in Minneapolis and Seattle and Toledo, militant unionizing in Michigan, a radical movement of the unemployed, and marching veterans and the elderly. There was a mobilized electorate, funded by the Mineworkers Union and galvanized by the President’s rhetoric.

Today, we have episodic mass action, best expressed by the public sector unions in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states which, while very impressive in inspiring a 50-state demonstration of support, lost the first round of the battle and has dissipated as a national movement since. More recently we’ve seen the “occupy” movement blossom from Wall Street to spread to every big city. This is a different, younger and less focused group of folks than we saw in Wisconsin. It has been sparsely reported; the rightwing populism of the Tea Partiers still gains the media’s attention. The Tea Partiers have turned full-face toward 1936-style Republican tosses of sand in the eyes and their blandishments that the government is picking the pocket of the working man with dastardly programs for health insurance and spending on infrastructure and schools, all the while they are protecting hedge fund managers, bankers, and multinational CEOs. Who will tell the people, as William Greider put it? I’m afraid the Obama for America campaign is no match.