What Obama Owes the Tea Party
Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, thinks American workers are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. It doesn't take much to understand how he reaches this conclusion.
Flat and declining incomes for the American multitudes have been accompanied by soaring corporate profits and gilded U.S. equity markets. From 2009 to 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, the average wealth of the richest 8 million households -- 7 percent of Americans -- rose almost 30 percent to more than $3 million. The average wealth of the other 93 percent dropped 4 percent, from $140,000 to $134,000. At the end of 2011, the top 7 percent of households had 63 percent of the nation's wealth, a 7 percent rise just since 2009.
Yet the primal scream that is the soundtrack to the Barack Obama years comes almost exclusively from the right-side speaker. Virtually none of the Tea Party rage is focused on wealth and income inequality. Instead, as Tom Edsall wrote in the New York Times, it's a bubbling cauldron of cultural insecurity, mixed with a jolting fear that Obama's unique brand of tyranny will be defined by massive transfers of public spending from the old and white (Social Security, Medicare) to the young and brown (Obamacare, education).
If cultural and racial resentment is the calling card of the right, the most salient register of the left is resentment of wealth, privilege and inequality. And, boy, is there a lot to resent. Of the 8.7 million jobs lost in the Great Recession, only 6.8 million have come back. Meanwhile wages have declined, and the population has grown. As the rich get richer, the median household income in the U.S. last year was more than $4,600 below its 2007 level -- roughly where it was in 1995.
In other words, the shabby state of middle- and working-class America during the Bush years, propped up as it was by debt, hasn't gotten any brighter during the Obama years of deleveraging and broad fiscal contraction.
Still, day after day, the left diligently fails to explode. Occupy Wall Street came for a time, then faded. The House Progressive Caucus, the left's foothold in Congress, has produced budgets and the like, but never impolitely. The Congressional Black Caucus met with Obama in July for the first time in two years. But in the midst of an especially brutal economy for black Americans, the lengthy snub failed to produce much more than a low grumble.
What's going on?
It seems that in addition to delivering an almost daily reputational hit to the Republican Party, the Tea Party folks are providing the glue for Obama's coalition. Former Democratic consultant Bob Shrum said the situation reminds him of Clinton's second term. Despite widespread misgivings on the left over welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act and Monica Lewinsky, Democrats remained united behind Clinton due to the relentless attacks waged on him by Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. "What Obama has is Ted Cruz along with all the crazies in the House," Shrum said. "When you're under that kind of all-out assault, your troops tend to stick with you and not break."
Matt Barreto, who polls for Latino Decisions, more or less agreed. "I think there has been a clear frustration from interest groups on the Left with the politics in Washington D.C. though I'm not sure they are creating any problems for the administration or Democratic leadership," Barreto wrote in an e-mail. "If the Republicans start to show a willingness to compromise, then I think you could envision a scenario in which those on the Left might withhold support from Democrats if they see them as pushing the agenda too far to the middle."
Reich isn't imagining things. The president's liberal base is restless, angry and dispirited. In this week's Bloomberg News poll, Obama's job approval among Democrats fell to 78 percent from 86 percent in June. But as long as Obama is president, the risk of Republican compromise seems exceedingly low, and the likelihood of continuing all-out attacks -- witness the blind lunges at Obamacare -- exceedingly high. The left hates this economy and the rising income polarization it produces. But the right hates Obama more. Until that changes, Obama and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill probably won't have to reckon with the left's slow-burning rage.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)