Thursday, March 19, 2009

Obama's Ambivalent Signals

E. J. Dionne writes in today's WaPo, in the same vein as I have below:

Conservatives have argued for decades that the sins most dangerous to our society were rooted in lust when in fact they were rooted in greed.

We are at the beginning of a great popular rebellion against those who showed no self-restraint when it came to lining their own pockets. Their entitlement mentality arose from an inflated sense of their own value and of how much smarter they were than everyone else.

A study of compensation levels in 2007 found that average CEO pay at S&P 500 companies was 344 times higher than the average worker's wage, and that the top 50 investment fund managers took home 19,000 times -- yes, that's with three zeroes -- as much as typical workers earned.

The sound you are hearing in response to the AIG payoffs -- excuse me, bonuses -- is the rancorous noise of their arrogance crashing to earth.

The Obama administration has sent thoroughly ambivalent signals on this question. Its initial response to the $165 million in AIG bonuses (the president's lieutenants said there was little to be done about them) suggested that it did not want to join in the populist anger and maybe didn't even realize that it was there. On Monday, President Obama made clear that he got it, denouncing the bonuses.

With the populist furies unleashed, the Obama administration has two choices. It can try to fight the public. Or it can use the public's outrage to move the country in a better direction. Obama can work with the populist wave or he can be overwhelmed by it. As Kazin notes, American progressives have succeeded in improving the "common welfare" only when they "talked in populist ways -- hopeful, expansive, even romantic."

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