On Obama's rich vs poor framing
Jan 14, 2012

On Obama's rich vs poor framing

Since 2010, Obama has made a very deliberate shift to increase the rhetoric and policies with regards to a rich vs poor framing. It has always been a part of his message, but it really ramped up in intensity starting with the deal to extent the Bush Tax cuts  for everybody for two years in exchange for continuing the 99 week unemployment benefits. Since then, battle after battle in government has had Obama push the (quite correct) idea that Republicans are unwilling to get the richest of the rich to contribute anything more in taxes. While he has been light on policies to this effect, Obama has also made sure to emphasize the related Wall Street vs Main Street framing.

At one level, this is just good politics. Polls consistently indicate that pluralities of the population is in agreement that the rich should contribute more, that the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans should expire and that there is a too large wealth divide. At a time of dwindling support for other issues of Obama like healthcare, this is an easy narrative and sentiment to tap into.

Obama also has known for some time that he is more than likely to face Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential election, who has been the clear frontrunner for a very long time in the GOP nomination race. Romney is uniquely susceptible to such criticism given his staggering wealth that came from being a big Wall Street boss profiting off of the dicing up of companies, often involving mass layoffs.

In the last week or two, we have seen just how harmful this message can be to Mitt Romney. The other candidates have been just decimating Romney with prolonged attack ads on his "vulture capitalism" and the job losses that arose from that. It got so bad that the RNC had to go out and make an appeal for the candidates to stop attacking each other so much (after months of doing just this, this message is one the Republicans are rightfully worried might stick). Dutifully, Gingrich subsequently asked his SuperPAC to lay off the pressure, but this issue is not going away.

The question is this: to what extent has Obama, and his political strategists, deliberately started pushing the rich vs poor, Wall Street vs Main Street, narrative out of anticipation for setting up an optimal kind of national dialogue with which to take on Mitt Romney?

It is a bit of a hard question to answer unequivocally because there are several reasons why Obama would think this was a good strategy, not just Romney, and because these messages have long been a part of his politics, just not quite as emphasized as they have been over the last year or so. However, I am sure this angle has been considered and it may not be pushed quite as hard were it not for the likelihood of Mitt Romney being the GOP Presidential nominee. Expect this issue to be an important one in the November election.

The Occupy factor:
No discussion of the rich vs poor mentality in the US could be complete without bringing up the Occupy movement. While this issue is certainly not all that this movement represents, it can not be denied that there was a very powerful sentiment latent in the population about these kind of issues that this movement tapped. I discussed some of these issues a while back here, but there was a related question which was to what extent could we attribute Occupy Wall Street with the fact that Obama had spent the previous year pushing some of these same issues? Again, the movement could never have taken off were it not for people genuinely caring about these issues, but I think it is possible that it would not have been so strong, possibly might not even have taken off at all, had Obama not steered the conversation in this way.

While this is all quite speculative and I don't mean to make any claim very strongly, I want to note one point since I have gotten push back from the left on this issue before. Typically, people like to see popular support for issues they agree with happening because the issues are just so poignant, and not because of the top down influence of those with the largest microphones like Obama. So Occupy Wall Street is seen on the left as entirely populist even if it was sparked or influenced by Obama to some level; the fact that it is non-partisan and anti-Democrat as well is seen as further proof. Conversely, if an issue we disagree with gets attention it is seen as not populous, but being pushed by other leaders or powers.

For example, it is widely acknowledged (correctly) on the left that the hyper focus to deficit and debt issues is because it was pushed by the GOP, particularly the Tea Party. The right still likes to think this is entirely because the issue is so legitimate and this is the only thing the people care about. Conversely, the right seems to go beyond what I am saying, to think that Occupy is entirely something that Obama and his socialists pushed. Most issues are actually a mixture of populist support latent in the population and a result of pushing by those with the biggest microphones, the question is what is the exact mixture. 

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