American politics has been a Grand Guignol stage in 2010. A horror show full of headless bodies, witches, and Mama Grizzlies ended with a shellacking, making one long for the sober docu-drama of a year ago. Consider that last year’s Player of the Year, Max Baucus, received the honor for his workmanlike performance in the saga of the public option. The senior senator from Montana saw to it that this rather benign provision—popular with the American people but disliked by private insurers—got hopelessly bottled up in the Senate Finance Committee. It was a shadowy role in a somewhat less than spicy production, but the man with a ready smile and large campaign war chest played it ably.
Amidst this year’s relentless splatter, many B-movie figures clawed their way into the spotlight. But with all due respect to the characters variously deranged (Gov. Jan Brewer, Carl Paladino) or just plain venomous (Rep. John Boehner, Glenn Beck), this year’s winner is not a performer, but instead the role. For above all else, 2010 was the year of the whiny corporate apologist.
The show started in mid-January, when the Supreme Court—in a flagrant act of “overreach”—went beyond the initial scope of the Citizens United case and opened the door for unlimited corporate spending in elections. During his State of the Union address, President Obama departed from protocol and highlighted his objection to a decision handed down by the highest court in the land. “Last week,” the president began, “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.” With off-beat, but revealing timing, the gathered lawmakers promptly rose in applause, with visions of dancing dollar signs in their heads. Even though Justice Samuel Alito famously mouthed “not true” as the president spoke, everyone in the room, including Alito, knew that the dam had broken.
For a hot minute that cold January night, Obama even seemed to sound a populist alarm bell. “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities,” he continued. “They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill to correct some of these problems.” Throughout the chamber, only a smattering of applause could be heard in support of such a high-minded nostrum. In the fall midterms, more than $4 billion would be spent, much of it undisclosed corporate money. And while Obama eventually regretted his “overreach,” Alito told a Manhattan Institute crowd that he would not attend the 2011 State of the Union Address.
Throughout the winter and spring, the president only intermittently played the populist card, preferring instead the role of professor. And, as in the health care summit, he often seemed like he was running a seminar in which he was angered that the students hadn’t done the reading. Still, no matter how hard he tried to placate big business, the president’s corporate foes repeatedly sought to remind him who really controlled the boardroom. The president’s health care bill contained no public option, and it provided private insurers with 40 million new customers, now required by law to buy their inferior product. What business would object to such a measure?
American insurance companies, of course. Upset that they would no longer be able to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, insurers started beefing up their contributions to the GOP. The health care execs generally preferred to remain offstage, funneling money through the Chamber of Commerce. The same could not be said for the Wall Street crowd.
We must stand tall against “Obama’s demonization of the banks,” admonished the Washington Times in late January, and 10 days later the president stated that “we’ve got to be non-ideological” about the financial crisis, and so “we can’t be demonizing every bank out there.” By mid-year, RNC Chair Michael Steele would nonetheless decry what he saw as the president’s attempt to “demonize” the sacred financial sector. Indeed, so commonplace became this fear of alleged Democratic sorcery that frightening headlines such as “Dodd to Demonize Financial Institutions Today” could be found on financial news websites. Whether we are in a moment of revived Puritanism—or just living in an echo chamber—is for future historians to determine.
Other verbs also captured the hellfire of the moment. On the late April day Obama came to Cooper Union to give a speech aimed at the financial kingpins, the Wall Street Journal said he would “castigate,” while Politico predicted he wouldn’t “scold” the easy-money boys. A week earlier, Mayor Bloomberg had declared that the “bashing of Wall Street is something that should worry everybody” (and just in case anyone doubted his support for that sacred downtown street, in the days before the speech, the mayor said “We’re on their side.”). For his part, the president gave a decent speech outlining modest reforms, and assured the assembly of what he called the “titans of industry” that “Americans don’t begrudge anybody for success when that success is earned.”
It’s not clear what the high-rollers thought of the president’s tepid tough talk that day at Cooper Union. One kingpin conspicuously absent, JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, had apparently deployed a different verb in a private discussion with the president some months earlier. In explaining why he objected to Obama’s “fat-cat” banker comments on 60 Minutes in late 2009, Dimon invoked another former Illinois senator who became the nation’s chief executive. “President Lincoln could have denigrated all Southerners,” Dimon told Obama, but “he didn’t.” Invoking the Civil War may seem just a bit melodramatic, but geographically speaking, the statement is irrefutable: Wall Street is indeed much closer to some of the border states than it is to Fort Sumter.
In the reaction to the Gulf Coast oil spill, the whining reached a fever pitch. Even though it was responsible for an entirely preventable disaster, BP, declared a range of commentators on Fox News and elsewhere, did not deserve the D word. “We can’t afford to demonize these energy producers to such an extent … that they go under,” 2008 Player of the Year Sarah Palin told Bill O’Reilly. Surely if there was one figure worthy of demonization this year, it was BP C.E.O. Tony Hayward, who acted throughout the crisis as if he were the spawn of the devil’s own strumpet (note: Google that phrase, then watch the film.) But when our dormant president awoke and called for Hayward’s ouster, at least one New Yorker defended the beleaguered Brit. “The guy that runs BP didn’t exactly go down there and blow up the well,” said Mayor Mike, who’s most certainly never been confused with a populist.
The embattled honchos continued to lash back through the dog days of summer. Outraged by Obama’s latest blitzkrieg attack—a small tax increase in carried interest—the Blackstone Group’s Steve Schwarzman said it was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” In a lukewarm apology for this red-hot analogy, Schwarzman stressed that “the fundamental issue of the administration’s need to work productively with business … is still of very serious concern, not only to me, but also to large parts of the business community.” At the same time, the financial sector’s lobbying group the Private Equity Council said that it would bankroll a “grassroots” campaign against tax increases in the fall.
By late summer, the astroturf started to bloom. Founded by the Koch brothers, who love ballet but loathe the president’s every pirouette, Americans for Prosperity launched a $45 million fall campaign. The president now sought to clean up such polluted political soil. In a late August radio address, he invoked the floodtides caused by both the Citizens United decision and the Gulf Coast gusher. An uncontrollable flow of cash would pour into the election, he warned, and as for its sources: “You don’t know if it’s BP. You don’t know if it’s a big insurance company or a Wall Street Bank. A group can hide behind a phony name like ‘Citizens for a Better Future,’ even if a more accurate name would be ‘Corporations for Weaker Oversight.’” In the late August heat, the populist fire danger seemed high, and Obama raised the specter of a “corporate takeover of our democracy.” Shockingly, the president’s warning generated little discussion in the mainstream media.
As the biennial media gold rush otherwise known as the election season took shape, Obama continued to be bashed for his alleged bashing of the nation’s hard-working business elite. At a mid-September town hall on CNBC, a true people’s tribune rose from the audience—CNBC analyst, hedge fund manager, and former Obama law school classmate Anthony Scaramucci. This champion of the little guy was there to voice the sentiments of what “a lot of his friends are saying,” for he represented the “Wall Street community,” which by any real standard is more like a country club. “We have felt like a piñata—and you’re whacking us with a stick,” Scaramucci told the president. Such a party, of course, would get a lot more interesting if a few Confederates and Nazis showed up.
In his response, Obama acknowledged the political dilemma he faced. “I have been amused over the last couple years,” he said, by “this sense of somehow me beating up on Wall Street. I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up on.” Yet he also knew that neither street appreciated his efforts to implement modest reforms. “There’s a big chunk of the country that thinks that I have been too soft on Wall Street. That’s probably the majority, not the minority,” he correctly noted. In seeking the middle ground amidst a monsoon, Obama had managed to piss off both the angry big boys and the voiceless masses. By year’s end, there would be no doubt which street had won the president’s allegiance.
Amidst record corporate profits and hoarded assets, staggering bonuses for Wall Street and windfall profits for BP, the whiners’ work has thus paid off handsomely. The president is now off their backs; and what Obama really needs to do, according to Mayor Bloomberg, is bring more business people into his inner circle. Meanwhile, the millions of jobless or victims of subprime lending and robo-foreclosures will remain powerless in American politics.Yet, as we salute the “whiny corporate apologist” as the Rail’s 2010 Player of the Year, let us remember the prescient words of the president who many had hoped Obama would emulate:
Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any other controlling private power.
The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, May 1938