Many Obama supporters have been disappointed by what they see as the administration’s mildness on regulatory issues — its embrace of limited financial reform that doesn’t break up the biggest banks, its support for offshore drilling, and so on. Yet corporate interests are balking at even modest changes from the permissiveness of the Bush era.
From the outside, this rage against regulation seems bizarre. I mean, what did they expect? The financial industry, in particular, ran wild under deregulation, eventually bringing on a crisis that has left 15 million Americans unemployed, and required large-scale taxpayer-financed bailouts to avoid an even worse outcome. Did Wall Street expect to emerge from all that without facing some new restrictions? Apparently it did.
So what President Obama and his party now face isn’t just, or even mainly, an opposition grounded in right-wing populism. For grass-roots anger is being channeled and exploited by corporate interests, which will be the big winners if the G.O.P. does well in November.
If this sounds familiar, it should: it’s the same formula the right has been using for a generation. Use identity politics to whip up the base; then, when the election is over, give priority to the concerns of your corporate donors. Run as the candidate of “real Americans,” not those soft-on-terror East coast liberals; then, once you’ve won, declare that you have a mandate to privatize Social Security. It comes as no surprise to learn that American Crossroads, a new organization whose goal is to deploy large amounts of corporate cash on behalf of Republican candidates, is the brainchild of none other than Karl Rove.
But won’t the grass-roots rebel at being used? Don’t count on it. Last week Rand Paul, the Tea Party darling who is now the Republican nominee for senator from Kentucky, declared that the president’s criticism of BP over the disastrous oil spill in the gulf is “un-American,” that “sometimes accidents happen.” The mood on the right may be populist, but it’s a kind of populism that’s remarkably sympathetic to big corporations.
So where does that leave the president and his party? Mr. Obama wanted to transcend partisanship. Instead, however, he finds himself very much in the position Franklin Roosevelt described in a famous 1936 speech, struggling with “the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.”
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Roosevelt turned corporate opposition into a badge of honor: “I welcome their hatred,” he declared. It’s time for President Obama to find his inner F.D.R., and do the same.