The Political Capital of “Public Anger”

Rhetorical cliffhangers at The New York Times

An article in The New York Times today takes a look at the “populist backlash” that is threatening to explode against the administration as it tries to pass its budget and gain Congressional support for additional bailout packages. The only problem: this populist rage is almost exclusively referred to via rhetorical cliffhangers that lead nowhere—at least, nowhere productive.

Take a look at a few of these cliffhangers:

The administration’s sharp rebuke of the American International Group on Sunday for handing out $165 million in executive bonuses…marks the latest effort by the White House to distance itself from abuses that could feed potentially disruptive public anger.
The danger, aides said, is that if he were to become identified as an advocate for the banks and Wall Street, people could take out their anger on him.
“Never underestimate the capacity of angry populism in times of economic stress,” said Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and labor secretary under President Bill Clinton.
“There’s unquestionably a strong populist surge out there,” said Joel Benenson, Mr. Obama’s pollster, citing his own polls and focus groups.

“Potentially disruptive.” “Could take out their anger.” “The capacity of angry populism.” “Strong populist surge.” From these statements, you’d think that the public is ready to storm Washington en masse, on the strength of its insatiable rage. But unless Washington has a moat and the American public a plethora of waders, this isn’t a very likely scenario.

The problem here is that it’s not clear from these descriptions what form this popular anger is taking, or to what extent it exists in an actionable form—or even, how this anger might concretely stop additional bailouts from happening. We hear that people are angry, but we’re letting the people who might ultimately capitalize on that anger characterize it and describe its reach, and that’s problematic. The story could have done a better job in getting down to what populist anger really means—in its practical, not rhetorical, impact.

The article, written by Adam Nagourney, seemingly wants to explain that America’s emotional temperature could affect Washington’s abilities to find legislative solutions for our country’s economic troubles—and that the administration is aware of that fact. There are two different things at play here: there’s the legislation Obama needs to get passed to help stabilize the banking system, regardless of how popular or unpopular it is, and there’s the public’s sense of betrayal regarding the way we got into this mess (cue: Jon Stewart’s takedown of Jim Cramer).

Those things are related, but they’re not exclusively bound to each other: Obama will continue to push for legislation that he and his advisors deem necessary. Simultaneously, in addressing the American public, Obama will use (as he already has) rhetoric that toes the line between compassion for the public’s anger and calm insistence about what is necessary to get the country back on its feet. In other words, for Obama and his team, fanning the flames of such so-called populist anger—and then quelling them—is politically expedient (and politically powerful) stuff.

Nagourney addresses this point further down in his article:

Mr. Obama’s advisers argued that to at least some extent, this was a sentiment they could tap to push through his measures in Congress, including raising taxes on the wealthy.

But it seems irresponsible to bury this bit—which essentially explains that “America is mad as hell” is a narrative the administration has good reason to tout.

Indeed, today marks the beginning of a campaign to harness Obama’s grassroots network in order to help pass legislation. As The Washington Post reports, the campaign, “which will be run under the aegis of the Democratic National Committee,”

will rely heavily on the 13 million-strong e-mail list put together during the campaign and now under the control of Organizing for America (OFA), a group overseen by the DNC. Aides familiar with the plan said it is an unprecedented attempt to transfer the grass-roots energy built during the presidential campaign into an effort to sway Congress.

No mention of populist anger here; but the intent is clear in a quote from David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign manager, who is now an advisor to OFA. Plouffe says that the campaign will call on supporters

to help the President win the debate between those who marched in lockstep with the failed Bush economic policies and now have no new ideas versus the Obama agenda which will help us manage the short term economic crisis and puts us on the path to long term prosperity.

Time will tell if this grassroots campaign will succeed as well as it did during the election cycle; chances are it won’t replicate that measure of success. After all, as Terry Nelson, a senior GOP official who managed part of McCain’s presidential campaign, states in the WaPo article: “In legislative advocacy, the actions are not as connected to the legislative outcome.”

This argument, that the power of the people is inevitably diminished when it comes to effecting change in legislation, may seem to thwart Plouffe’s argument—and the hopes of the grassroots campaign—that there is power yet to be harnessed from the bottom-up. But it’s also a bit wide-eyed to think that the Obama administration isn’t completely aware of that fact—or, to be frank, the fact that invoking the specter of public outrage carries immense political capital. The Times would have done better to reframe its story to hone in on that aspect of the story.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.