The protests in Wisconsin pose a challenge to President Obama. On the one hand, he’s long wanted to kick-start a movement of the left that would power his transformative agenda. On the other hand, Obama never meant that movement to foreground an unsympathetic protagonist like public employee unions. Obama could benefit from taking open leadership of this new left-populist movement, thus steering it in a more advantageous direction. Yet that would strip away his “post-partisan pragmatist” veneer and foreground his leftism instead. If Obama keeps the new movement at arms length, however, its direction is liable to harm him.
Obama’s ideal would have been to steer (from a distance) an anti-business populist movement of the left. In a 2009 interview with Business Week, Obama defended himself against charges of being an “anti-business radical” by saying that his job was to “channel” the “populist energy” of Americans “cynical” about business in a constructive direction. In other words, in the wake of the financial crisis, Obama was hoping to have a populist anti-business movement of the left at his back. That would allow him to present himself to America’s businesses as the good cop who would save them from the rabble’s wrath, if only they would play ball with his proposed restructuring of the economy. That dynamic enabled Obama to pass his financial reform bill, and to coopt the insurance companies into his health-care reform plan as well. Despite Obama’s efforts to stir up yet more wrath against Wall Street “fat cats,” however, a genuine anti-business movement never took off. Instead, Obama’s own policies were marked as anti-business, and he took the blame for the bad economy.
Now Obama’s got his populist movement of the left, but it’s not one focused on anger at American business. It’s heroes instead are pampered public employee unions, and that is not the way to appeal to a broad swathe of the American public. Obama’s huge stimulus bill was tailored to help these public employee unions, but that was never openly emphasized. Now the stimulus has given birth to the Tea Party, which has blocked more state bailouts and moved to pare back out-of-control public unions. And this, in turn, has created a counter-movement among one of the least popular segments of Obama’s core constituency.
So Obama is in an awkward position. He wants and needs a movement of the left, to bring out his voters and to power his transformative agenda. But to be effective, that movement has got to be broader-based than what we’re seeing in Wisconsin. One solution would be for the president to step out in front of the movement and gather every element of the left’s fragmented spectrum together under the same banner. Obama could take the focus off of Wisconsin and put it back on planned Republican spending cuts in Washington. For example, Obama could rally women’s groups alarmed at proposed GOP cuts to Planned Parenthood to join with public employee unions and other elements of the left in a grand movement against alleged Republican cruelty. But if Obama were to take the lead in such a campaign, it would turn him into a polarizing figure of the left, exactly what got him shellacked in 2010.
On the other hand, if Obama stays quiet and lets things take their own course, he could wind up being dragged down by the unsympathetic public employee unions now taking de facto control of his side’s message.
What Obama is hoping for now, I think, is a shut-down of the federal government. That would help him put Wisconsin into a broader context of battles against Republican ambitions to shrink government. The best GOP counter to this would be continuing resolutions in Washington that avoid a shut-down and keep the focus on the battle over public employee unions in the states.
As I show in Radical-in-Chief, the dream of Obama’s community organizing mentors was to jump-start a populist anti-business movement of the left that could be quietly guided from behind by socialists. At one point Obama’s mentors even sponsored a “Big Business Day” designed to launch a permanent anti-business movement, in the same way that Earth Day launched the ecology movement. The reform plans Obama’s mentors had in mind were very much like the ones that he himself has proposed today. Obama’s strategy, I argue, has always been a “movement strategy.” But the longed-for anti-business movement never materialized, and we’re faced now with an unattractive and defensive public-labor-based movement instead. That puts Obama in a bind. Either he steers the movement toward more broad-based left-goals and constituencies (at the cost of his “moderate pragmatist” persona), or he risks being pulled down by an unsympathetic movement he effectively created, but cannot control.