This post originally appeared at Open Left.
Symbolism is very powerful, and great Presidents use it to set the tone of their Presidency. It is the “Bully Pulpit” because Presidents tell the people “this is the way it is now,” then repeat the message and they act in ways that consistently reinforce it, until the message ripples out and people start acting accordingly.
FDR took office and signaled change. What could be more dramatic that his first 100 days? Message: The government will from now on be on the side of the People.
Reagan certainly signaled change. Message: The government will now be on the side of the wealthy. The rest of you are on your own.
Bush II certainly signaled change. People understood that we will be a country ruled by men, not laws. (And he meant men. Wealthy, white men.)
What has Obama signaled? What tone has he set? What actions have backed up his words? What new direction does the country understand we are following?
More below the fold.
Upon taking office, FDR had sent strong signals that we are a people in common and that where a weak government had benefited and enriched primary the wealthy a strong government will now protect and empower us all, prioritizing common social values over profits for a few. In his inaugural address he said,
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
FDR talked about the common good and interdependence on each other,
…we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.
He said that government itself would directly hire people if that’s what it took to create jobs,
Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. … It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.
Then he acted, beginning with his famous 100 days reinforcing the signals, strengthening the government and making it crystal clear that this government would be about protecting and employing the people. To build government and employ people his administration set up numerous “alphabet agencies” like the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and later the Work Projects Administration (WPA).
He raised taxes on the wealthy to help pay for his programs as well as to bring a more democratic approach to government. He made it clear we are a democratic one-person-one-vote, not a plutocratic one-dollar-one-vote country. Estate taxes in particular helped democratize the economy, provide some degree of equality of opportunity and reduce the great concentration of wealth among a few.
During the 1936 campaign he talked about the problems that had been caused by the extreme concentration of wealth, deriding “a concentration of property ownership in the hands of one or two percent of the population, a concentration unequaled in any great Nation since the days of the later Roman Empire.”
Then, in his second inaugural address, using the word “government” over and over, and praising it he made it clear that government, government and government were the solution to the problems the country faced:
Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered.
. . . A century and a half ago they established the Federal Government in order to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the American people. Today we invoke those same powers of government to achieve the same objectives. Four years of new experience have not belied our historic instinct. They hold out the clear hope that government within communities, government within the separate States, and government of the United States can do the things the times require, without yielding its democracy. Our tasks in the last four years did not force democracy to take a holiday.
[. . .] We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
FDR made it clear that our government was of the people and that his government was on the side of the people.
When Ronald Reagan took office his administration sent out strong signals to the public making it crystal clear that the country was going to go in a new direction. Even with the House and Senate under Democratic control, Reagan signaled that government, long the protector of the people, would now be on the side of big business and the wealthy. In his inaugural address he called these protections “roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity.” He said taxation “penalizes successful achievement” and said public spending was “mortgaging … our children’s future.” He made it clear changes were coming and it was going to be done his way, using phrases like,
“We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding—we are going to begin to act, beginning today.
[. . .] And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles, there will be no compromise.”
He acted. An address is one thing, action is another. In August of that year PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, went on strike, giving Reagan an opportunity to reinforce the signals with very public actions. He fired the air traffic controllers and confirmed that the government was no longer going to stand up for working people.
And so began a series of cascading changes. His administration stopped enforcing labor laws and regulations as well as laws and regulations protecting consumers. His tax cuts on the highest incomes, combined with dramatic increases in payroll taxes, set the state for a new era of wealth concentration. His campaign for deregulation began an era of predatory capitalism that led to ever-larger corporations yielding ever-greater influence over the government, with the largest of course demanding rule changes that benefited them at the expense of smaller enterprises and the public.
“Government is the problem” is a profoundly anti-democratic statement. The alternative to rule by the people is rule by the few, and people got the message that the companies and wealthy are running things now. Reagan brought in an era of deregulation (removing public control over the actions of the big companies), tax cuts (definding democracy), government borrowing (making government obligated to the wealthy), and general large-company predatory domination that eventually led to the economic collapse of 2008.
Every chart you see, of … anything … alters direction dramatically in about 1981. This chart of strikes per 1000 workers, for example. Concentration of wealth. Working people’s share of the benefits of the economy. National debt. You name it, whatever you are charting, that chart changes direction right around 1981.
OK, I’ll hold my nose and bring up a few. Right after taking office Bush suspended the “contractor responsibility” rule. This rule prevented companies from getting government contracts if they had been found guilty of defrauding the government, violating worker safety rules, or other crimes, rulebreaking, favoritism, etc. This was just one of thousands of actions that certainly signaled change and set a tone for what was to come.
And, of course, the whole hyper-partisan, non-compromise, with us or against us — and you will experience bad things happening to you if you are against us.
Anyway, it was very clear under Bush II that the country was going in a direction and that’s the way it is so shut up. I don’t need to go into detail, we’d all rather just get it behind us.
Today Democrats have the Presidency, the House and a supermajority in the Senate. But since President Obama took office he has not sent strong signals – backed by consistent action – that the country is heading in a new direction, returning to a pre-Reagan era when government was on the side of the people and the law.
In the absence of such signals and actions his administration is now widely perceived as standing with Wall Street and the large corporations against Main Street and the people. The general feeling (right or wrong) is that they have failed to hold anyone from the lawless Bush administration accountable for … anything … right up to war crimes and torture. They failed to hold anyone in corporate America accountable for … anything. They failed to make corporate America change … anything.
The worst, most damaging thing? They didn’t hold Wall Street accountable, make them start lending, or stop them from handing out huge bonuses with our money. This year’s financial sector bonus pool is $140 billion, which is way more than enough to cover the most generous health care bill.
The good things that have done this year have not followed a narrative of change, or been done symbolically, consistently, publicly, loudly, dramatically and clearly. For example, the tariff slapped on Chinese tires was announced late on Friday night, Sept. 11.
What could Obama do? He could follow a clear narrative of change that makes everyone understand there is no question that the people and the law are in charge again. Here are some signals I would like to see President Obama send, backed by action, telling the country that We, the People are again in control:
I want to see some Democratic Senators publicly held accountable for going against Obama’s agenda.
I want to see the government very publicly slap down a large company for illegally firing union organizers, polluting,
I want to see the government publicly prosecute a few companies for discriminating against (firing, pay differentials, etc.) people over 50 or because they are women or minorities. I’d like to see very public sting operations that catch these companies doing what we all know they are doing.
I’d like to see some Bush cronies held accountable for the corruption and lawbreaking that occurred. (And how about doing something for Gov. Siegelman and apologizing to him on behalf of the government?)
Actually I just want to see some damn laws enforced. A signal that we are returning to rule of law would tell the public that government is back on the side of the people. How many Bushies have been prosecuted for corruption? How many cronies have been asked to give the money back?
I could go on here, but I think I have made my point.
In the comments: What are some signals YOU would like to see Obama send, and actions to back them up. What can he do that lets people know that things really have changed?
(Yes, of course, fire Geithner and Summers, that just goes without saying.)