Will Obama bring the populist fire in tonight's speech?

If Nancy Pelosi ever wants to stand behind Barack Obama for another State of the Union speech, that quest begins tonight.

President Barack Obama has a choice for how he uses his State of the Union speech this evening. He could follow the advice of Blue Dog Democrats like Mark Penn, who wrote in The Hill today that Obama should avoid “rhetoric that could be interpreted as class warfare.” Or he can find his inner populist and give the speech that the 99 percent needs to hear by announcing that the rich and the Right have already declared that war, and now he intends to win it on behalf of the people.

I'm rooting for the latter, but fearful that Obama is no William Jennings Bryant – or either of the Presidents Roosevelt – and that he is just not up for seizing this moment and going to war with the powerful plutocrats who are ruining this country.

But there are signs that Obama is at least prepared to “double down on taxing the rich,” as the Christian Science Monitor put it today. Certainly, all signs indicate that he will at least raise the economic inequity issue again tonight, and it's a positive sign that the invited audience will include Debbie Bosanek, the secretary to billionaire investor Warren Buffet that he famously complained shouldn't be paying his same tax rate. Certainly, Obama intends to push for his “Buffet rule” that would tax investment returns as income rather than at lower capital gains rates.

But those sorts of reasonable arguments aren't enough. Obama has been calling for higher taxes on the rich throughout his presidency, albeit never as forcefully as he did on the presidential campaign trail in 2008. And since then, he's repeatedly betrayed that pledge in cutting deals with Republicans in Congress, exacerbating historically high concentrations of wealth and betraying his own stated principles.

The Occupy movement and most of the left – and even segments of the Tea Party right that complain about the economic elites – no longer trust Obama and the Democrats to fight for the interests of the commoner. We've become cynical about putting any hopes in a president poised to shatter campaign fundraising records this year.

Yet as Obama prepares to run for reelection against either a vulture capitalist or hypocritical moralist – both of whom will be openly shilling for the 1 percent – he should realize that it's both good policy and good politics to capitalize on the opportunity that the Occupy movement has opened up, join the class war, and help us finally win it and seize the resources we need to deal with this country's myriad problems.

Today's Chronicle includes a front page story about Rep. Nancy Pelosi's hopes that Democrats will pick up the 25 seats needed to retake the House of Representatives this year – along with analysts poo-pooing that possibility. The only hope they offered for Pelosi's plan is a meltdown by the Republican presidential nominee.

But that sort of clear contrast between Democrats and Republicans won't simply happen on its own, it is something that Obama and the Democrats will need to force by finally relying more on populist ire than using campaign contributions from the wealthy to tarnish their opponents. Simply winning the presidential election won't help Obama break this country's political gridlock, he needs to make this race about the undue power of the rich and the Right and win it on those terms.

Pelosi acknowledged that her best hopes for gaining a substantial number of Congressional seats are in California, but they don't seem to realize that the real potential here is with changing the political dialogue and tapping the 58 percent of California voters who said in a November Field Poll that they agree with the economic critiques that sparked the Occupy movement (and even higher percentages have supported taxing millionaires). Even those who didn't join the Occupy movement agree with its basic analysis that the few are exploiting the many.

There is a simmering populist discontent that will play out in unpredictable ways this year. And it's possible that many of the left will never trust Obama until his deeds finally match his words. But there is no larger mainstream political podium in this country than the State of the Union speech, and if Obama misses this opportunity to declare his allegiance with the 99 percent – and his willingness to fight for us – then we may all just be in for the nastiest yet most meaningless presidential election in modern history.


Over co-operation and bi-partisanship?

That's exactly why Obama is President and you're a hack writer for an obscure "newspaper".

Why so much hate, envy and loathing? I've never understood that.

And if the reality was really 99% versus 1% then the GOP would only ever poll 1%. You and I both know that's an illusion.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

Bipartisanship leaves out most of the country that isn't invested in either party, and cooperation entails good faith efforts on both sides, which has been utterly lacking on the Right (which does believe in conflict more than cooperation) in recent years. As to your percentage formulation, you conveniently leave out the role of money in politics and the fact that the 1 percent disproportionately sponsors both parties, and the Republicans are almost total in their service. But you are right about one thing: I do believe in political conflict, which is the only way the 99 percent have made any progress in this plutocratic country. Politics is about struggle and conflict, not this "bipartisan" kabuki theater bullshit that the vast majority of Americans (except perhaps the 13 percent of Americans who approve of Congress right now) no longer believe in. As for my "hate, envy, and loathing," let me break that one down for you as well: it isn't any of those things, I simply recognize that a small number of people have stolen the wealth of this country, this planet, and future generations, and that we need it back to deal with the problems that we face. I don't envy them, I don't even hate them, but I do loathe their tactics and their greed and I'm determined to oppose them. You can be their apologist, and Obama their appeaser, but I think you're both cowards. I choose to fight.

Posted by steven on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

Identity politics
Class warfare
The politics of envy
Pitching Americans against each other

Since Obama took power, gold has doubled in dollar terms, unemployment has gone up by 20% and the national deficit and debt has soared.

As of April 2012, the US will have the highest rate of corporate taxation in the western world. Which means that 2 trillion in profits by US companies will be stashed offshore. Obama needs to fix that.

He does need to change what he is doing, but going down the road of civil war, predicated on envy of those who have succeeded, is not going to produce anything worthwhile.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

Despite that allegedly "high rate." They use accounting gimmicks and good attorneys to reduce their tax rate to less than zero. In some cases certain companies, like GE, actually receive rebates.

And those profits stored off-shore? Last time a president advocated for an overseas profits tax holiday the companies used the money to repurchase stock and award bonuses to executives - not to create jobs.

Posted by H. Monk-Brown CI on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

the corporate tax rate is so punitive.

Bonuses and stock profits do get spent, you know? The wealthy create millions of jobs. Those trillions would boost the economy regardless.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

You'd have us believe that if only we lowered taxes, corporations wouldn't try to avoid them anymore?

Do you really think people are that stupid?

Posted by Greg on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

would ensue whether the marginal tax rate was 75% or 15%?

We've known since the Reagan revolution that lower tax rates can actually increase tax revenues, because tax avoidance becomes moot and economic activity is encouraged.

Is this still the 1970's and I just woke up?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

Whether you tax them 10% or 90%, corporations will use every trick available to avoid taxes.

You're peddling a discredited Reaganomics theory. Look up "Laffer Curve" in Wikipedia. I've never seen an article in wikipedia that states outright that one of the criticisms of a theory is that "it has little resemblance to reailty." But that's exactly what it says about this theory that there's some sort of curve that relates to taxes vs revenues. It's utter garbage. Junk science.

Posted by Greg on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

amount of the payback is immaterial to the effort expended to gain or avoid it.

I've seen zero evidence for that and it is counter-intuitive.

Anyway, we all pay corporate taxes thru higher prices.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

I'm actually saying something quite intuitive. If you raise taxes, you get more revenue. Duh!

Corporations will still try to evade those taxes no matter what you do, but if you actually try to get some revenue out of them, you'll get more than if you don't even try. Duh!

And remember something else -taxes are *only* on the profits. So this is where supply and demand kicks in. Yes, the corporations will want to raise prices to make more profits, but others will step in and be willing to make do with less profits if it means outcompeting the other one. You can't raise prices indefinitely.

What actually happens in practice when corporate taxes and particularly taxes on wealthy individuals go up, is the corporation is forced to "hide" those profits in ways that may actually be beneficial to the economy -reinvest back into the business!

See, right now, there's no incentive to do that. That's why corporations are sitting on a pile of 3 trillion dollars, simply hoarding it, while paying out massive bonuses. However, back when taxes were high in the 60s, the calculus was different. Why take the money as profit, or give it away to executives in fat bonus, when it's all going to the government anyway? Well, OK then, let's not call it "profit" then, and just reinvest it into the business and hire more people. That way it's not taxed, and we grow the business. And since we're using some of that money to pay workers more and give them benefits, we should be able to attract good workers who help us build the company. And that's exactly what they did. And when companies all over the country did that, what happened is that more people entered the middle class, and there was more demand for the products these companies sold, thus creating a positive cycle of prosperity.

Today we've taken the calculus responsible for creating the strongest economy in the world, and turned it on its head. Today, low taxes offer perverse incentives that destroy the long-term economic health of the nation.

Posted by Greg on Jan. 25, 2012 @ 9:20 am

Not a flood. All those billions given to executives who caused the financial crisis certainly don't seem to have created many jobs - now have they?

Is it still the mid 2000s and I've just woken up?

Posted by H. Monk-Brown CI on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 6:27 pm


You appear to recognize that Obama and the Dems have engaged in "bipartisan" kabuki theater for popular consumption~ that is, that it was just for show. And yet you demand more of the same. Why? Hasn't it occurred to you that Obama is in the pocket of Wall Street by now? Look at his appointments~ Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, William Daley. As Eric Brooks pointed out, "Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase now -run- this country." This president just signed into law a bill to allow indefinite military detention of American "terrorism suspects", and has defended his right to assassinate people without trial anywhere in the world, including U.S. citizens. Are you the least bit alarmed by any of this? (I'm quite shocked that SFBG has entirely ignored this issue.) Still holding out hope for reform? A "change you can believe in"? Ha!

I could go on about the policies of this administration, but I'm sure you're aware of how far to the right this administration has listed. Even Paul Krugman calls Obama a 'moderate conservative'.
I cringe at the thought of Obama coopting the message of the Occupy Movement. I don't care for more political theatre from Obama. I want him to come clean about the fact that he is no populist and never was. He represents the plutocrats and the Party of Wall Street (both Dems or Repugs). Only when we wake up to the fact that voting for either party perpetuates the same evil system, will we be in a position to fight it.


Posted by Lisa on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

given a mandate to turn the nation upside down. Obama has no mandate to overthrow capitalism and replace it with some Eastern European style socialism.

I voted for Obama and he has done exactly what I wanted - not rock the boat too much but be more professional than Bush.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 24, 2012 @ 6:42 pm