President Barack Obama is returning to the rhetorical roots of Democratic politics in the final weeks of this election: setting up a battle of the classes
(Bloomberg)—President Barack Obama is returning to the rhetorical roots of Democratic politics in the final weeks of this election: setting up a battle of the classes.
Presenting Democrats as the party that will fight for the "middle class," and Republicans as the party that will look out for "millionaires and billionaires," Obama in campaign speeches and at fundraisers has sought to make his point using a populist lexicon that aligns Republicans with big businesses as the forces behind the worst recession since the Great Depression.
His cast of villains makes repeated appearances, including in Obama's remarks at an Oct. 10 rally in Philadelphia: "special interests," "Wall Street banks," "corporations," the "oil industry," the "insurance industry" and "credit card companies." Specific corporations aren't spared, as when the president said the Republican governing agenda was "written by a former lobbyist for AIG and Exxon Mobil."
"If the other side wins, they'll try their hardest to give rein back to the insurance companies and the credit-card companies and the Wall Street banks that we're finally holding accountable," Obama told a crowd of supporters in Philadelphia.
With the nation's unemployment rate equaling or exceeding 9.5 percent for 14 consecutive months and forecasts saying it will remain at that rate through the middle of next year, Obama is trying to redirect voter anger and anxiety away from his policies to mitigate likely Democratic losses in the Nov. 2 election.
'The Bad Guy'
"This is clearly designed to sort of draw out the bad guy in this election," said Evan Tracey, president of Kantar Media's CMAG in Arlington, Virginia, which tracks political ads.
"There is certainly a lot of anger at corporate America because of bailouts, because of the Wall Street collapse," Tracey said. "So what they're looking for is really a target of opportunity."
Kevin Madden, who worked for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the 2008 election, called Obama's rhetoric "class warfare of the worst kind" that risks undermining the type of presidential campaign he ran.
"Voters who gravitated to Obama as someone who held the promise of being unconventional now see him as a typical politician, wallowing in the status quo," Madden said.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and onetime political adviser to former President Bill Clinton, said it is Republicans in this election who are pitting economic classes against each other with proposals that favor creating private investment accounts for Social Security and giving tax breaks to corporations moving jobs overseas.
"That sure sounds like class warfare to me, class warfare being waged by Republicans against the middle class," he said. "Bully for President Obama for calling them on it."
Obama's rhetoric fits in a long tradition of populist political messages. Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address assailed "unscrupulous money changers" and called for restoration of "social values more noble than mere monetary profit."
At a Democratic Party event for younger voters in Washington on Sept. 30, Obama said Republican victories in next month's elections would "give back power to the same special interests we've been fighting for the last 20 months."
Obama has expanded the battlefield to include pro- Republican groups funded by undisclosed donors who are paying for advertising attacking Democratic candidates. He argues that's the result of a Supreme Court ruling in January in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down limits on corporate and union political expenditures.
'You Don't Know'
"It could be the oil industry, could be the insurance industry, could be Wall Street, you don't know," Obama said at a fundraiser in Chicago on Oct. 7.
He also has questioned whether groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other tax-exempt organizations that don't disclose their donors are using money from "foreign-owned corporations" to run political ads against Democratic candidates.
"You don't know because they don't have to disclose," he said in Philadelphia.
While Obama doesn't mention the Chamber by name, aides including top political adviser David Axelrod have made clear it's among the targets. The Democratic National Committee has produced an ad naming the Chamber, saying it "shills for big business" and suggesting Republicans may be "benefiting from secret foreign money." The Chamber has called the ad "ridiculous and false."
'Attempt to Demonize'
"We are seeing an attempt to demonize specific groups and distract Americans from a failed economic agenda," said Bruce Josten, the Chamber's Vice President.
The Chamber, the nation's largest business association, is pushing back. The organization is spending $75 million to back pro-business candidates, and its president, Tom Donohue, said last week that the administration is imposing regulations on health care, energy, the environment and labor that are "suffocating the entrepreneurial spirit."
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said Obama's message has been consistent since he began running for president in 2007.
"What he's saying right now is very consistent with what he said when he was in the primaries in 2008, in the general election in 2008, when he first got to the White House and all of this year," he said. "The debate we're having is about a fundamental difference in economic philosophy."
— With assistance from Michael Callahan and Kristin Jensen in Washington.