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Afraid to Stoke Populist Ire, Obama Abandons 'Inequality' Rhetoric

Guided by pollsters and consultants, top Democrats tack to the right on economic issues

- Jon Queally, staff writer

(Photo: WhiteHouse.gov)As reported by the Washington Post on Saturday, President Obama is heeding the instructions and advice of pollsters and political consultants as the administration abandons its flirtation with populist rhetoric and a brief White House push to make the scourge of economic inequality a political issue.

Instead, according to officials who spoke to the Post's Zachary Goldfarb, the administration will pivot towards more "politically palatable" messaging less likely to draw critique from Wall Street and the political right.

According to Goldfarb's reporting, the shift in tactics

hints at a broader repositioning of Democratic messaging ahead of the midterm elections and, perhaps, the 2016 presidential race. House and Senate strategists and their pollsters have concluded that they should focus less on the wealth gap and more on emphasizing that all Americans should have economic “opportunity” to get ahead or a “fair shot.”

“Both the White House and the Senate agreed that the decline of middle-class incomes was the most serious issue we face in this country, but the focus had to be on how to get middle-class incomes up, rather than drive other people’s incomes down,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the messaging chief for Senate Democrats.

He added, “There are some who believe it’s better to talk about the negative parts of wealth that people have accumulated, but our polling data show people care less about that and more about how we’re going to help them.”

But many liberal Democrats, represented most prominently by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), have been pushing an increasingly populist economic agenda. Some warn against papering over the wealth gap with euphemisms.

On the progressive left, both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, much new energy is being funneled into the idea that a "new populist moment" is the only hope for reinvigorating a progressive agenda in the face of election cycles increasingly dominated by the interests of big money donors and corporate cash.

This month, The Nation magazine dedicated an entire issue to ideas around 'progressive strategies" for this new "populist moment." In one essay, written by Rev. William J. Barber, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and the chief political voice of the Moral Monday movement taking shape in the south, said that the only winnable strategy is one that transcends the major parties, the normal divisions, and focuses on deep forms of justice while articulating a clear vision.

"We need a transformative movement—state-based, deeply moral, deeply constitutional, pro-justice," he said. "We need to build for the long term, not around one issue or campaign."

Robert Borosage—head of the Institute for America's Future which held a conference on progressive populism in May that featured Rev. Barber, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and many others—says the "sad irony of American politics is that the right is far weaker than it appears and the left far stronger than it asserts."

Looking towards the likely presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton in 2016, says Borosage, offers an illustrative point about the challenges faced by progressives who are so frequently abandoned by Democrats so closely aligned with Wall Street. He writes:

If [Clinton] doesn’t face a serious challenge in the primaries—which at this point seems unlikely—the strength of the progressive voice will be muted. In fact, the most attractive Democratic leaders—people like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, Tammy Baldwin, Keith Ellison, Raúl Grijalva, Donna Edwards and Bill de Blasio—support a vision and an agenda far bolder and more progressive than that of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Joe Biden. And they are backed by the rising American electorate: Obama’s electoral majority of minorities, millennials and single women, as well as the vast majority of the party base outside Wall Street and Silicon Valley, including unions and civil rights, environmental, women’s rights and citizen-action groups.

This reality can and should be organized and amplified. A broad coalition should lay out a clear vision and reform agenda. Progressives in the House and Senate could force national debates, as Warren has done on student loans. Social media and activism could be complemented by the old populist tactic of dispatching lecturers to traverse the country, speaking at union halls, house parties, schools and church basements. That would help crystallize serious pressure on Clinton—or any other candidate. And it would set up progressives both to oppose the right and to press an independent agenda when a Democrat is in the White House. That agenda would still face tough sledding, since it will inevitably be opposed by corporate and Wall Street Democrats as well as the right. But it would help mobilize ever greater popular protests and demands.

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