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Mad as Hell at Teatime

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 17, 2009

The cool, cerebral White House might logically conclude that Wednesday's decidedly uncool, uncerebral "tea bag" protests were intellectually and politically incoherent, and therefore not worth a second thought. That would be a dangerous mistake.

The made-for-television demonstrations in cities across the country were generally small, and the only thing they proved conclusively is that -- you might want to sit down -- some Americans don't much enjoy paying taxes. What the rallies suggested, however, is that opposition to the Obama administration is coalescing into what I would call a Howard Beale Faction, in honor of the choleric anchorman in the movie "Network" whose signature line now seems to have been elevated into philosophy: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Not going to take what anymore? Well, whatever. The occasion was Tax Day, April 15, and clearly there was a lot of anger about taxes. That can't have been the only source of ire, however, since President Obama's policies mean that the vast majority of Americans will be paying less in income taxes, not more. In terms of logical self-interest, only the wealthy should have come out to dump their tea bags and wave their pitchforks.

There was anger at hemorrhagic government spending, and this plotline in the mad-as-hell narrative at least made sense. A neutral observer might point out that the president who should have to answer for this year's astronomical $1.7 trillion deficit is George W. Bush, since this is his budget -- and since he's the one who hid the costs of our two faraway wars and demanded a king's ransom to bail out the banks. But it's not as if Obama is some kind of tightwad, given his decision -- which I support -- to push ahead with new spending on health care, education and energy. And anyway, in the worldview of the Howard Beale Faction, the important distinction isn't between one president and the next. It's between "us" and "them."

Some protesters were mad about measures they feared Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress might take to strengthen gun control laws. Some were mad about illegal immigration, some about abortion, some about gay marriage. At times, the protests ventured into fantasyland. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, caught up in the excitement of the day, prattled nonsensically about Texas's onetime status as an independent country and how, purportedly, the state had reserved the right to secede.

The protests were all over the map and thus hard to take seriously. A reality check would show that Obama's approval rating is running higher than 60 percent in most recent polls. Surveys indicate that Americans blame Wall Street and the Bush administration for the woeful state of the economy. Generally speaking, the polls show that most Americans are willing to go along with the president's agenda, at least for now, and realize that it will take time to begin seeing results.

But the polls also point to what looks like a reservoir of simmering discontent. For example, according to a CBS News-New York Times survey released last week, 47 percent of respondents were willing to believe that the Obama administration's bailout assistance to the banks would ultimately benefit all Americans, as opposed to 40 percent who believed the money would just benefit the banks. But in that same poll, 58 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the administration's plans to provide financial aid to the banks. In other words: Maybe this is necessary, but we don't like it. Among self-described independent voters, 68 percent disapproved of how the administration was bailing out the banks.

I dwell on this one question buried deep inside one poll because I think it contains a quiet warning -- the same message that could be discerned amid the random noise of the Howard Beale shoutfests. When the economy begins to rebound, Wall Street will come back first -- already, we're seeing some big banks, still bloated with taxpayer funds, reporting healthy profits. After recovery begins, unemployment will almost certainly continue to rise for months until it hits its peak. The mad-as-hell faction may thrive and multiply.

A growing sense of us vs. them, of the little guy vs. the big guy, is out there waiting to be exploited by anyone clever enough to fashion a sophisticated populist critique of the Obama administration's policies. I know it seems crazy to use words like "clever" and "sophisticated" in connection with today's Republican Party, but stranger things have happened.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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