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David Sirota
David Sirota
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No Time for A Minimalist


Old Milwaukee beer's slogan — "It just doesn't get any better than this" — should be Barack Obama's after-hours toast these days.

He faces a Republican Party that built a house-of-cards economy — constructed with paper by speculators betting against inevitable collapse. With recession looming, his opponent is a guy who admits "economics is not something I've understood as well as I should" — a career politician who famously helped campaign donors intimidate regulators during the Savings & Loan scandal.

Yet, Obama probably isn't drinking to anything lately, as Reuters' poll shows John McCain leading on economic issues.

The numbers are tragic but predictable. Until this week, Obama largely avoided the contrasting FDR-style populism the nation wants and the moment demands.

For example, instead of endorsing forceful re-regulation months ago when the financial meltdown commenced, Obama responded with a vague white paper that not only offered few hard-hitting prescriptions, but denigrated key Depression-era regulations.

Likewise, despite slipping in the industrial heartland, Obama has muted his criticism of NAFTA. Indeed, one Obama adviser last week called trade only "an issue of symbolic importance." Another said that far from opposing a controversial NAFTA expansion into Colombia as promised, the candidate now wants "to make it possible."

The self-defeating behavior reflects both money and orthodoxy.

Obama has raised $9.8 million from investment houses (more than McCain). For economic advice, he relies on people like Bob Rubin – the NAFTA architect who gutted market regulations as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary and who then tried to rustle up government favors for Enron as a $17-million-a-year executive at Citigroup, a bank embroiled in today's implosion.

Under such influences, Obama sends Wall Street hints that his "change" mantra might be empty rhetoric. This month, his adviser Cass Sunstein told The New Republic's Establishment readership that the senator is merely "a minimalist." In a recent New York Times interview, Obama himself reiterated his loyalty to free-market fundamentalism, even as it birthed the current emergency.

Discerning whether cash crafted or rewarded these statements is less important than Obama eschewing the populism that could undermine the Royalist Right and fix the economy.

And the GOP is filling the resulting void.

Sans aggressive opposition, McCain likens himself to Teddy Roosevelt and pledges support for tighter regulation — hoping America forgets his Keating Five past and March declaration that, "I'm always for less regulation."

His surrogates, meanwhile, are on the cultural offensive. Even as they endorse the crony communism of Bear Stearns bailouts, conservatives are using Obama's community organizing experience to depict him as an inner-city black socialist — a caricature invoking the geography, ethnicity and ideology that Republicans regularly rely on to prompt white backlashes.

Regrettably, the underlying elitism charge may stick — not because of Republicans' dishonest rationales, but because Obama confirms the attack's grounding in a different truth.

Polls show majority support for tougher regulation and fair trade reforms — the very agenda opposed by the Washington and Wall Street elites who populate Obama's kitchen cabinet. The Democratic candidate's "minimalism" therefore isn't a desire to “accommodate, rather than to repudiate, the defining beliefs of most Americans,” as Sunstein sententiously claimed. It is fealty to elites rather than the public — the dictionary definition of elitism.

Certainly, Obama's is a less pernicious elitism than McCain's billionaire tax breaks — and the Illinois lawmaker's sharper speeches and new ads this week might indicate an authentic shift. But if they don't and the elitism reappears, Obama could stunt real reform and lose a seemingly un-losable election.

"[Americans] crave someone who will be their pocketbook champion," writes Bob Kuttner, author of the book "Obama's Challenge." "If swing voters don't get that clear message from the Democrat, they will turn to the maverick patriot who did hard time in Hanoi."

David Sirota is a bestselling author whose newest book, "The Uprising," was just released in June of 2008. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at



3 Comments | Post Comment
If Dennis Kucinich were the Dem. candidate, the contrast between him and millionaire McCain would give Americans a real choice between someone who wants our political system to work for the vast majority and one who wants more and more wealth concentrated in the hands of the very few, the only sharing to be done when the rich start losing their ass on Wall Street. How ironic that the Republican base, which finds homosexuality so repulsive, are so drawn to leaders who shove it up their rectum in the economic sphere.
Comment: #1
Posted by: michael nola
Fri Sep 19, 2008 12:31 PM
Good article, David.

It's clear that McCain is befuddled and Obama is not up to speed, today especially we need to hear from Paul and Nader. I find it remarkable how very little the MSM and the candidates are debating issues and the choices Americans must make.
Comment: #2
Posted by: jim
Fri Sep 19, 2008 8:04 PM
So it sounds like the financial situation is that banks are at risk of going out of business and will liquidate their assets. The proposed $250-$700Billion bailout is claimed to be needed before these banks go out of business and the government is asked to act now to prevent this from happening. For one, I don't think all banks will instantly close their doors. I was still able to deposit and withdraw money from the ATM as well as from a bank teller, my work check still went through and I was still able to pay for items at the store. For GWB to suggest that something is needed now and to turn over large sums of money to Paulson smells bad. I hear them suggesting turning money over to the few elites, but I don't hear of any suggestions of turning money over to the people directly.

If $700Billion was divided up to each forclosed home, there would be a little over $1mill for each home. My friend just bought out a $3000 forclosed home in Ohio so that tells me if the elite gets a hold of this bailout, there could be as much as $997,000 left over for some homes for the elite to play with.

I'm betting this money would be at a historically low rate which the elite know how to do "leveraged investments" where you get a low rate loan and use it in a low risk- higher rate of return investment. For example, If I could get a loan from the US government at 2% but turn around to buy the New Zeland bonds at 8%, I would get a gaurenteed 6% RoR. No wonder why Paulison was saying I want a no-questions asked bailout. If there is $997,000 left over for a bunch of homes, where would you put that money? Give it back to the tax payer... probably not, certainly not when there is no oversite during the tail end of the presidential and congressional cycle.

I would believe the government is acting honestly if they said something like "...the US will offer US tax payers directly with the highest credit scores up to $1Mill towards buying up forclosed properties. The money will be a partial grant to cover some down payment to those who do not have the money and the loan will be extremely compeditive (e.g. 3% fixed for 15yrs). The main requirement would be of credit scores and location to the forclosed property. No businesses allowed to participate...."

Something also sounds funny that the media is telling us that "this morgage stuff is just too complicated for polititians to understand..." suggesting that either we don't understand it either and we need to trust the elite or we are electing idiots that yield to special interests and during this election cycle, now is not the time for a populist movement. Ironically, I think it is the perfect time for the US tax payer to tell the government, trust in your people over your special interest groups.... Give us an honest chance by leveling the playing field and to make a change of action and we'll fix this economy ourselves.
Comment: #3
Posted by: andy
Thu Sep 25, 2008 4:26 PM
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