Belmont Club

The 2012 Economic Choices

President Obama has decided to make income inequality the major focus of his re-election campaign. Using the Occupy Wall Street events to highlight his message, he has called boosting middle-class opportunity the “defining issue of our times”. The weakening economy has driven both parties to find an approach which best taps into it. For the Republicans it will be the lack of jobs. For Obama it will be the gap between the rich and the poor. The LA Times summarizes both approaches succinctly:

Republicans would like to make the November election a referendum on Obama’s economic record. For much of his presidency, they have pounded away at monthly statistics showing high unemployment and anemic growth.

“We’re seeing continuing high levels of unemployment. We see home values declining; foreclosures remain at record levels,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney points out often. Obama, he says, “has failed in the job he was elected to do.”…

So increasingly, Obama and his aides have switched to a longer view, trying to focus attention on what they portray as the president’s defense of the middle class. That positioning, they hope, will set up a helpful contrast with his November opponent.

“This isn’t just about recovering from this recession,” said a senior advisor to Obama, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal White House discussions. “This is about saving the middle class from a decline that’s been going on for three decades.”

Democratic strategists believe their new approach has gained more of an audience this fall, in part from the attention to inequality spotlighted by Occupy Wall Street and similar demonstrations. And they feel Republicans have played into their argument by first backing tax cuts for the wealthy and then balking at a payroll tax cut aimed at the middle class.

“The social Darwinism, the trickle-down economics — these are just not working for this country,” said David Axelrod, the president’s longest-standing political advisor. “The president’s vision was a very distinct vision from what the Republicans are offering.”

The announcement is an admission that the OWS — objectively if not deliberately — was the curtain raiser for a strategic communications plan which in essence presents redistribution as a solution to the ongoing economic crisis. If the current crisis had its genesis in the last “three decades” then something other than what the Clintons had doing has to be emplaced. Whether that program is called ‘socialism’ or something else, it is clearly something different; something hatched as the President’s team put it, “from a higher altitude”.

To avoid looking like a Bolshevik, Obama is spinning himself as a moderate, the simple heir of Roosvelt, defending America against the primitivist Republicans. EJ Dionne at the San Francisco Chronicle says that Republicans, by resisting Obama, are playing into his hands. It is they, he says, who are the subversives. They are trying to dismantle the modest redistributive mechanisms that are now part of the American mainstream. All Obama is trying to do, he says, is expand them a little.

Today’s Republicans cast the federal government as an oppressive force, a drag on the economy and an enemy of private initiative. The GOP is engaged in a wholesale effort to redefine the government help that Americans take for granted as an effort to create a radically new, statist society. Consider Romney’s claim in a Bedford, N.H. speech: “President Obama believes that government should create equal outcomes. And the only people who truly enjoy any real rewards are those who do the redistributing – the government.”

Obama believes no such thing. But Romney’s sleight of hand is revealing: Republicans are increasingly inclined to argue that any redistribution (and Social Security, Medicare, student loans, veterans benefits and food stamps are all redistributive) is but a step down the road to some radically egalitarian dystopia.

Dionne says Obama is going to avoid the economic quagmire by asking a different question. The issue will not be whether the economy is bad or good but whether government matters. By posing the issue in these terms the President can essentially ask each and every public employee, and every last dependent on government largesse: do you want to keep your job because these Republicans are going to take it away from you. Dionne says:

The GOP might well win a referendum on the state of the economy. But if this is instead a larger-scale referendum on whether government should be “inconsequential”, Republicans will find the consequences to be very disappointing.

The Democratic Party is readying itself for either a muddled Republican message or a conservative call to arms. Against either kind of opposition it intends to push further left. If against a muddler then it plans to advance against scattered opposition. If against a conservative activist, then to win a decisive ideological battle.  But whatever they encounter, Obama intends to win in 2012 and believes he can do it.

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