Back when Barack Obama was still just a U.S. senator running for president, he told a group of donors in a New Jersey suburb, “Make me do it.” He was borrowing from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used the same phrase (according to Harry Belafonte, who heard the story directly from Eleanor Roosevelt) when responding to legendary union organizer A. Philip Randolph’s demand for civil rights for African-Americans.
While President Obama has made concession after concession to both the corporate-funded tea party and his Wall Street donors, now that he is again in campaign mode, his progressive critics are being warned not to attack him, as that might aid and abet the Republican bid for the White House.
Enter the 99 percenters. The Occupy Wall Street ranks continue to grow, inspiring more than 1,000 solidarity protests around the country and the globe. After weeks, and one of the largest mass arrests in U.S. history, Obama finally commented: “I think people are frustrated, and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.” But neither he nor his advisers—or the Republicans—know what to do with this burgeoning mass movement.
Following the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allows unlimited corporate donations to support election advertising, the hunger for campaign cash is insatiable. The Obama re-election campaign aims to raise $1 billion. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the financial industry was Obama’s second-largest source of 2008 campaign contributions, surpassed only by the lawyers/lobbyists industry sector.
The suggestion that a loss for Obama would signal a return to the Bush era has some merit: The Associated Press reported recently that “almost all of [Mitt] Romney’s 22 special advisers held senior Bush administration positions in diplomacy, defense or intelligence. Two former Republican senators are included as well as Bush-era CIA chief Michael Hayden and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.” But so is the Obama presidency an expansion of the Bush era, unless there is a new “Push era.”
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The organic strength of Occupy Wall Street defies the standard dismissals from the corporate media’s predictably stale stable of pundits. For them, it is all about the divide between the Republicans and the Democrats, a divide the protesters have a hard time seeing. They see both parties captured by Wall Street. Richard Haass, head of the establishment Council on Foreign Relations, said of the protesters, “They’re not serious.” He asked why they are not talking about entitlements. Perhaps it is because, to the 99 percent, Social Security and Medicare are not the problem, but rather growing inequality, with the 400 richest Americans having more wealth than half of all Americans combined. And then there is the overwhelming cost and toll of war, first and foremost the lives lost, but also the lives destroyed, on all sides.
It’s why, for example, Jose Vasquez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, was down at Occupy Wall Street on Monday night. He told me: “It’s no secret that a lot of veterans are facing unemployment, homelessness and a lot of other issues that are dealing with the economy. A lot of people get deployed multiple times and are still struggling. … I’ve met a lot of veterans who have come here. I just met a guy who is active duty, took leave just to come to Occupy Wall Street.”
The historic election of Barack Obama was achieved by millions of people across the political spectrum. For years during the Bush administration, people felt they were hitting their heads against a brick wall. With the election, the wall had become a door, but it was only open a crack. The question was, would it be kicked open or slammed shut? It is not up to one person. Obama had moved from community organizer in chief to commander in chief. When forces used to having the ear of the most powerful person on earth whisper their demands in the Oval Office, the president must see a force more powerful outside his window, whether he likes it or not, and say, “If I do that, they will storm the Bastille.” If there’s no one out there, we are all in big trouble.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.