Obama's populism problem

What will public anger over things like the bonuses for AIG employees mean for the administration's plans?

Published March 16, 2009 8:30PM (EDT)

There is, unsurprisingly, quite a bit of anger out there over the bonuses being handed out to employees at AIG, the insurance company that's received more than $100 billion worth of taxpayer money. And already, various politicians and interest groups are responding to -- and in some cases moving to take advantage of -- that anger.

President Obama says his administration will "pursue every legal avenue to block these bonuses and make the American taxpayers whole," New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is issuing subpoenas for information from AIG about the employees who are getting the bonuses, the Service Employees International Union is organizing protests against various banks, MoveOn is asking its members to sign a petition calling on the administration to do whatever it takes to stop the bonus payouts.

Along with all of this, there's been a minor wave of people opining about the various possible effects of a new American populism centered around the economy. Some of this has come because of what the New York Times' Adam Nagourney reports is a fear within the Obama adminstration that "anger at financial institutions could also end up being directed at Congress and the White House and could complicate President Obama’s agenda."

The problem for Obama is that he's likely to call for further bailouts for financial industry players as well as automakers, and while he'll likely continue taking populist stances like the one he took Monday, his overall position might put him at risk of being lumped in with companies like AIG. Moreover, Congress is almost certain to become harder to negotiate with, at least on these issues.

"We’ve got enormous problems that need to be addressed," David Axelrod, a senior advisor to the president, told Nagourney. "And it’s hard to address because there’s a lot of anger about the irresponsibility that led us to this point."

That said, though, this may end up being a double-edged sword, one that the administration can use against Republican opponents as well. Certainly it will become harder for the GOP to argue against measures like a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans, for instance. And, as NBC's First Read blog points out, "the populist rage also might present a bigger challenge to the political party that’s more associated with big business, less regulation, and tax cuts for the wealthy."

Writing for the New Republic, my former Salon colleague Walter Shapiro has a very sharp piece on all of this. He, like Nagourney, sees trouble ahead for Obama, and argues that this populism isn't, as it did in FDR's time, really coming from either the right or the left, but is more general, and that this phenomenon could thus be even more dangerous for Obama.

"[T]he reality is that apolitical populism -- a spasmodic outpouring of ideologically incoherent rage -- could easily drown Obama's inevitable request for more bank bailout funds," Shapiro writes. "Faced with the parched economic landscape and the ruins of the once proud towers of personal financial security, many voters are as bewildered as the character Muley in the movie version of 'The Grapes of Wrath' who cannot figure out who to blame for being forced off the land by the foreclosure of his farm. He's told that it is not really the sheriff, the land agent, or even the bank in Tulsa. 'Then,' Muley asks, 'who do we shoot?'"

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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