On Sunday, President Obama made a speech at the inauguration of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial that referenced the protests on Wall Street. The backlash on Republican blogs was predictable; one ran the headline, “Obama Uses MLK Memorial Speech To Bash Bush, Promote Occupy Wall St.” But it’s worth pointing out that isn’t actually what the President said. At the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial, Obama said:
“If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there; that the businessman can enter tough negotiations with his company’s union without vilifying the right to collectively bargain.”
Nearly every story I read cut off the second part of the quote and that’s the component that is crucial to understanding what Obama means. He compares the image of a protester angry with Wall Street, with the image of a businessman frustrated with yapping about collective bargaining.
We immediately run into an issue of leverage; the topic of power. Does the President really believe that Goldman Sachs should be treated with the same level of civility and emotion as the teachers of Wisconsin? Does he really think that the influence of the two parties is comparable? Does he really not understand that the basis for his juxtaposition is completely flawed, that the destruction of the legislation maintaining collective bargaining is, exactly, what the people camped out in Zuccotti Park are protesting?
The President can’t possibly believe any of this, just like Joe Biden can’t possibly believe, as he said last week, that there is a real problem with Bank of America’s new debit-card fees. While in Delaware Biden was frequently referred to as “The Senator from MBNA”, a reference to the credit card company that Bank of America acquired in 2009 for $34.2 billion. Biden, whose son was a lobbyist for MBNA, collected $214,100 from the credit card company.
It was probably these contributions that led Biden to become the only Democratic candidate of the last election to vote for Bush’s disastrous Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act; a piece of legislation that was a welcomed gift for credit card companies. It extended the time frame of liquidations, required those filing for multiple bankruptcies to pay previous debts that would have previously been waived, and positioned credit card debt as a higher priority than child support, forcing the stiffed party to haggle lenders for their alimony.
This is the Obama administration, in theory and in practice. The suggestion that Martin Luther King would embrace this kind of triangulation is something between a joke and an insult. In contrast to this reduction of King’s views, Obama knocked it out the park during a Democratic debate when he was asked if MLK would back his campaign: “Well, I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable…I believe change does not happen from the top down; it happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that. It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus. [It was] union workers who were willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize. It was women who decided, ‘You know, I’m as smart as my husband; I’d better get the right to vote.’ Them arguing, mobilizing, agitating and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable. I think that’s the key.”
When I went to OWS a couple of weeks ago, I made a point to count the number of references that were specifically anti-Obama. I counted four signs, three pins, and a shirt. This was a much different experience than going to a protest during the Bush administration, events that were cluttered with creative representations of virtually the entire cabinet. At a march to protest a World Economic Forum protest in 2002, I watched an activist impersonating Bush launch into an anti-Hugo Chavez speech, while three others pretended to beat him with a large pretzel.
Do you remember the significance of the pretzel? Bush had, allegedly, choked on one, fell down, and bruised his face. We weren’t completely sure what it meant (Did we claim it reinforced his stupidity? Speculate that maybe he was drinking again?) But those kids at the protest deemed it notable enough to construct a gargantuan pretzel out of cardboard. Back then, the Left perceived everything the President said or did as something worth noting, despite the fact that most of the country’s problems were inertial. They were the byproduct of a system for which Bush was simply the figurehead.
There’s two ways to look at the lack of anti-Obama sentiment at OWS. One way is to assume that most people are still scared shitless of the Republicans and firmly believes Democratic leadership will, eventually, listen to their demands, that, any day now, the authentic Obama will emerge from the shadows speaking in the populist tones of FDR and, presumably, chomping on a similar cigarette holder.
The second way is a bit more complicated and a lot more inspiring. It was defined by the economist Doug Henwood during the “Yes We Can” hysteria:
“There’s no doubt that Obamalust does embody some phantasmic longing for a better world—more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane. He’ll deliver little of that—but there’s evidence of some admirable popular desires behind the crush. And they will inevitably be disappointed…never did the possibility of disappointment offer so much hope. That’s not what the candidate means by that word, but history can be a great ironist.”
Maybe the disappointment, finally, has the potential to change the dynamic of the entire debate. Maybe people will start believing that change emanates not from the ballot box or even the cell phone, but from the street. Maybe people will trade in the hope of Obama for the promise of Dr. King, who said, “One day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”
Sounds like he was upset about a lot more than excesses, Mr. President.
By Michael Arria