Some Occupy activists, especially those who are critical of President Obama, may not realize Obama advocated for the 99% and criticized the greed of the oligarchy long before Occupy Wall Street injected these ideas into the mainstream (see the excerpts printed below).
But before we get to why Occupy should be happy Obama won, let’s discuss how Occupy helped Obama win. While Obama’s 2012 victory may be attributed to many things – from voter rejection of the GOP agenda, to Mitt Romney’s lying problem, to a superior Democratic voter turnout effort – let’s not underestimate what may have been the single greatest force behind Obama’s decisive win: a better informed and more engaged electorate.
Beginning last fall, energized Occupy activists from Wall Street to Los Angeles and everywhere in between sustained a public information campaign that denounced Wall St. bankers and championed the concept of “People before Profit.” The Occupy participants, some of whom remain active today, succeeded in keeping their narrative of social and economic justice alive in the news for weeks, if not months, with successive demonstrations and direct actions.
Against this backdrop of a 99% reawakening, the presidential candidates toured the country to sell their opposing economic visions. Voters were left to choose between supporting the GOP myth of trickle-down economics, or Obama’s more compassionate and logical vision of redirecting concentrated wealth to take care of our own and plan for the future. In the most reductive sense imaginable, Obama represented the cause of the 99%, while the field of GOP candidates, which ultimately narrowed to Mitt Romney, represented the status quo of 1% rule.
The ultimate outcome, as we already know, was a decisive victory for a President who wants the wealthy to pay a higher tax rate and thinks education and healthcare come before corporate tax breaks. Obama’s landslide victory is a real feat for an electorate that awarded George W. Bush and his failed policies a second term only eight years ago. There’s no doubt that Occupy activism influenced that shift in national thinking.
While Obama might have gotten a boost from Occupy, it’s plausible that Occupy got a boost from Obama, too. In the eyes of mainstream America, hearing the President validate the movement may have lent it more credibility in major newsrooms, as well as in the minds of ordinary Americans. Watch Obama’s first public comments on Occupy:
There are big caveats to this love story I’ve spun thus far between Obama and Occupy, and we’ll get to those in a moment. But, first, let’s hit on why Occupy supporters should be happy Obama won, despite any perceived chinks in his Progressive armor.
Obama’s reelection signifies that the nation is ready for more progressivism and for a restructuring of our economic system. Obama clearly ran on a platform of reducing corporate subsidies and raising taxes on the wealthy. The willingness of our fellow voters to support the “People before Profit” mentality that Obama represents is the reason why even the most radical member of Occupy should be celebrating his election victory.
Now, for the nuts and bolts of Obama’s progressive vision, let’s look at some passages from The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s 2006 book that approximates the Occupy vision five years before it would take root in Zuccotti park:
Obama on the 99% vs. the 1%, Bush tax cuts, and the need for campaign finance reform:
[Political donors] reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale…they…were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital…I had no problem telling well-heeled supporters that the tax cuts they’d received from George Bush should be reversed…Still, I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising…I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of…frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population – that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve. (p. 114, paperback edition)
On trickle-down economics:
[Reagan’s] domestic polices tilted heavily toward economic elites, with corporate raiders making tidy profits throughout the eighties while unions were busted and the income for the average working stiff flat-lined. (p. 31-32)
On corporate lobbies:
I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term “special interests,” which lumps together ExxonMobil and bricklayers, the pharmaceutical lobby and the parents of special-ed kids…to my mind, there’s a difference between a corporate lobby whose clout is based on money alone…those who use their economic power to magnify their political influence far beyond what their number might justify, and those who are simply seeking to pool their votes to sway their representatives. The former subverts the very idea of democracy. That latter are its essence. (p. 116)
On economic inequality:
So let’s be clear. The rich in America have little to complain about. Between 1971 and 2001, while the median wage and salary income of the average worker showed literally no gain, the income of the top hundredth of a percent went up almost 500 percent…These trends were already at work throughout the nineties…Bush’s tax cuts made them worse… At a certain point one has enough…once your drapes cost more than the average American’s yearly salary, then you can afford to pay a bit more in taxes. (p. 193)
Over the past decade, we’ve seen strong economic growth but anemic job growth; big leaps in productivity but flat-lining wages; hefty corporate profits, but a shrinking share of those profits going to workers…doing nothing probably means…a nation even more stratified economically and socially than it currently is…while a growing number of…citizens are consigned to low-paying service jobs…pressed to work longer hours, dependent on an underfunded, overburdened, and underperforming public sector for their health care, their retirement, and their children’s educations. (p. 146-48)
Near the end of the chapter titled “Opportunity,” then U.S. Senator Obama (D-IL) recounts a remark Warren Buffett made at their first face-to-face meeting:
If there’s class warfare going on in America, then my class is winning. (p. 189-190)
Given that Obama articulated the Occupy values long before Occupy arose, claims that Obama “co-opted” the Occupy movement to win re-election seem unwarranted. Obama is a genuine Progressive; he’s just a pragmatic one. Obama seeks to achieve some progress, rather than none at all. Take the controversy over Obamacare, for instance. Some on the left despise it because it didn’t go far enough, while conservatives spurn it because it achieved the moderate insurance reforms it did. Nevertheless, Obama’s growing list of achievements is considerable.
However, the idea that Obama and Occupy may be partners in moving America forward is not meant to reduce the Occupy movement to a pro-Democrat or pro-Obama movement; it’s no such thing, not by a long shot. Occupy transcends a single political candidate, or even a specific time.
And while Obama does find strong support from some Occupy participants, he certainly isn’t a wide-spread favorite with the Occupy crowd, mainly because of policies such as drone strikes, indefinite detention of terrorism suspects, perceptions of over-indulgence of corporate America, and his signing of the “anti-Occupy” protester law. (Formally known as the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011, the “anti-protester” bill updated a 1971 law with no new penalties. It passed Congress nearly unanimously.)
But, wrapping up, what’s the solution for those honest Progressives who are honestly dissatisfied with Obama? Supporting third-party candidates, as some Occupy activists do, is an excellent way to alleviate the two-party gridlock we see currently in Washington. But I argue that Progressives must be systematic, and not stubborn, in our efforts. We mustn’t lose sight of strategic steps that are necessary in the short-term – such as electing Obama over Romney – even as we yearn for greater long-term victories – like putting “true” Progressives, like Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), in charge of Washington.
Whether Occupy activists will continue to influence the political debate will depend, I think, on whether they remain resolute in their efforts despite waning numbers, temper their idealism with short-term realism, and join forces with other long-standing Progressive champions, while still retaining enough of that hallmark creativity and independence that has led Occupy to defy the parameters of the establishment and push the boundaries of public perception, in a way that no populist uprising has since the Civil Rights movement.
Equally important is a spirit of compromise that recognizes that Occupy’s ideological opponents have some points, and that we’ll never get our way on everything, all at once. Still, we shouldn’t alienate ourselves from change by becoming disillusioned by small victories, or discouraged that grassroots organizing could take years, if not decades, to reap desired benefits. Perseverance counts.
Politics – like progress – requires our participation. More than anything, we need people who are determined to spread truth and call out lies, organize with like-minded individuals, and apply their talents and personal power to support good reforms and good candidates and oppose backsliding.
Go to town halls.
Write your editor/elected representative.
Post on Facebook.
Go to the demonstration.
These are the ways we can all continue to Occupy, or impact, the political sphere in ways that camping out can no longer achieve.
And, for four more years, we mustn’t write off a President who is positioned to achieve more Progressive victories in his second term – especially if Americans actively support the changes they want to see happen.
FWIW: I’m disclosing that I am both an Occupy supporter and an Obama supporter (in case you hadn’t guessed)…so perhaps I just have a funny way of seeing the world. Feel free to add your comments on this post below. More about the Occupy movement at OccupyTogether.org or search “Occupy” and your city’s name to find local Occupy news and events.