The most compelling endorsement of Barack Obama for president came from Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic convention. Warren, who grew up “on the ragged edge of the middle class” in Oklahoma, captured the real stakes clearly.
In an era of Gilded Age inequality, we’ve witnessed the first act of class warfare waged by the upper class. Wall Street bankers, miffed that they weren’t worshiped after blowing up the economy and getting bailed out by taxpayers, anted up millions to displace President Obama. Running for reelection, Sen. Sherrod Brown, a tribune for working people, witnessed more than $30 million in outside money — much of it anonymous — flood Ohio with negative ads against him.
Republicans finally settled on a true Plutarch — Mitt Romney — as their banner carrier. Romney has waged a campaign of upper-class disdain for the electorate. He was the “gated candidate.” He didn’t let his presidential race impede plans for a multimillion-dollar expansion of one of his beach homes, complete with elevators for his cars. He scorned revealing tax returns that would reveal the dodges and havens he exploited to pay a lower rate than do the cops who patrol his streets.
His disdain was reflected in his agenda. He called for tax cuts for all — particularly the wealthy — without revealing how he would pay for them. He called for deep cuts in domestic spending without revealing what he would cut, other than Big Bird. He called for repealing Obamacare without revealing what he would replace it with. He called for turning Medicare into a voucher system that would put more costs on seniors without revealing how he thought they would pay for it. He championed a “territorial” corporate tax system that would make any profit earned abroad tax-free — giving multinationals multimillion-dollar incentives to move jobs or report profits abroad.
This part of his agenda was inviolate; everything else — from his position on abortion to his catering to the anti-immigrant crowd to his muscular posturing on foreign policy — seemed to be situational, depending on the audience he sought to sell.
Obama, we know, has few populist bones in his body. His temperament is moderate; his preference is for compromise; his success has been based on bringing us together. His recovery plan included both direct investment in rebuilding the country and tax cuts to gain Republican support. His health-care reform was based on a Heritage Foundation plan adopted by Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts.
Obama responded to the financial crisis by saving the big banks, not breaking them up, but pushed through reforms that included Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to protect consumer from financial predators. He ended the war in Iraq while moving to end the Afghan war, the longest in U.S. history. His recovery act included the most extensive support for the vulnerable since the Great Society, the greatest investment in new energy ever and doubled investment in education. He saved the auto industry without nationalizing it.
For this, Obama has been submitted to an unrelenting and ugly campaign of insult and slander. Republican presidential candidates called him a Kenyan socialist, intimated he was literally anti-American, peddled cheap racial gibes about the “food stamp president,” lied that he had gone on an apology tour (which would not have been a bad idea).
Obama inherited an economy in free fall, a financial system on the verge of collapse, a plummeting housing sector. He faced immediate, unrelenting and treacherous obstruction from Republicans willing to risk the economy to gain partisan advantage. Yet his policies have provided the United States with a better recovery than any other industrial nation has seen.
Any president running for reelection with mass unemployment, falling wages and growing insecurity would be vulnerable. What is striking about this election is not that it is close but that Obama has run as strong as he has. And in these closing days, there is a good chance that he will be reelected, with the more populist Brown leading him in Ohio, with Warren winning in Massachusetts. The plutocrats went wild in this election. They may just learn that Americans are having none of it.