The 2008 financial crisis shook America’s attitude and generated widespread anxiety. When Obama took the podium on October 13th, 2008, he was already in a favorable position in the presidential race. Capitalizing on the financial chaos resulting from the failure of the venerable Lehman Bros financial firm, Obama had built a healthy lead in the polls over John McCain on the basis of two factors: a calming political demeanor cautioning resolve and deliberation in the face of economic disaster, and a persistent recourse to effective scapegoating through by juxtaposing the American “people” (represented through the figure of Main Street) against irresponsible and selfish capitalists (figured metonymically as Wall Street). Speaking in Toledo, Ohio, Obama delivered an address entitled “A Rescue Plan for the Middle Class”. My contention today is that this speech embraced a hybrid populism which came close to encouraging meaningful collective responsibility for the September financial crisis, but ultimately created an opening for the conservative economic populism that emerged in early 2009 by advocating for a democratic fantasy capable of remedying economic strain.
Obama opens the speech with a flurry of collective pronouns that alternate between establishing his consubstantiality with the audience but also the occasional reminder that the demands and insecurities present are those of the “people” not of the government. “We meet at a moment of great uncertainty for America. The economic crisis we face is the worst since the Great Depression.” Obama then moves to the second person. “You’ve got auto plants here in Ohio…closing their doors…You’ve lost one of every four manufacturing jobs…the question isn’t just ‘are you better off than you were four years ago’, it’s ‘are you better off than you were four weeks ago?’” referencing the famous Ronald Reagan slogan even as he made clear the issues Americans were facing. Immediately after setting the table for disaster, Obama presents the election as part of a moment for a transformation in American politics. “We still have the most talented, most productive workers of any country on earth…It won’t be easy, but there’s no reason we can’t make this century another American century.” These workers and their existential economic concerns are then juxtaposed with the comments of a McCain campaign staffer who had been quoted as saying “if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” “Senator McCain may be worried about losing an election, but I’m worried about Americans who are losing their jobs, and their homes, and their life savings…they can’t afford four more years of the economic theory that says we should give more and more to millionaires and billionaires and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.” By tapping into the still-circulating “Wall St./Main St.” trope, Obama establishes a unity between governmental elitism and private sector elitism.
By then offering a five point plan for recovery that includes tax relief and mortgage support, the contrast between existing Washington ways and Obama is made clear: his rescue plan for the middle class is a bailout for the “people” not for economic elites benefiting from the cronyism of their partners in Washington. The repeated emphasis on first person language solidifies this effect. “We should also change the unfair bankruptcy laws,” “We just need to act quickly and decisively” “We should also extend and expand unemployment benefits” “We should fast track the loan guarantees.” Such measures will be paid for by “scouring the federal budget, line-by-line, ending programs that we don’t need and making the ones we do work more efficiently and cost less.” The explanation for the how of payment makes easier a transition into the second part of the proposal: a call for Americans to become more financially responsible in their own private lives. “We’ve lived through an era of easy money, in which we were allowed and even encouraged to spend without limits; to borrow instead of save.” “Allowed” and “encouraged” are verb choices which imply that the decision to spend beyond one’s means was not one taken with a full knowledge of the risks involved: such spending is the effect of a previously undetectable cultural malaise. Obama goes further to trade on a rhetoric of individual responsibility while also undermining it, framing more spending as “not a choice but a necessity. People have been forced to turn to credit cards and home equity loans to keep up, just like our government has borrowed for China.” Again Obama strikes with a parallelism between “the people” and the government creating an equivalence that makes it easier to admit to one’s own failings as the enthymeme “if the government can do it, so can I” remains implied. However for both “people” and government, this turn to debt is dangerous, and our reliance on such measures is temporary, for “Once we get past the present emergency…we have to break that cycle of debt. Our long-term future requires that we do what’s necessary to scale down our deficits, grow wages and encourage personal savings again.” Note again the use of collective pronouns establishing the government and “the people” as one.
Rather than delivering a fiery class sensitive polemic about the wrong done to America, Obama’s speech indexes a moderate view less beholden to scapegoating urges and more invested in a positive sense of futurity. Obama only mentions restrictions on CEO pay in passing, but generally passes over populist demagoguing in favor of his rescue plan for the middle class. The government can work for the people but not against Wall Street. Michael Lee observes in his study on populist argument four major characteristics of such speeches: construction of a virtuous people, construction of a nefarious enemy, articulation of the enemy to a systemic logic, and the production of an apocalyptic confrontation. By these standards, Obama’s speech is a tepid, perhaps even non-populist speech, which continues to advance the virtues of “the people” and locating the minimization of their agency in culture and circumstances not in a malevolent enemy figure.
Obama also gestures towards the possibility of what Kenneth Burke calls mortification, the possibility that people might suffer for their sins. However, instead of cultivating such a sense (one which, if directed correctly, might lead to a perspective by incongruity and a course correction in action) Obama locates the main causes of irresponsibility in circumstances and culture. Because subjects are enmeshed in their cultural contexts, scapegoating “culture” can amount to the worst of both worlds by excusing potentially deleterious individual attitudes on the basis of their cultural production (hence depoliticizing them) while providing no discrete vessel to serve as the specific scapegoat capable of discharging the process of victimage. One result, then, of this halfhearted move to mortification, is that while there is still a crime or an exigence (financial disaster) responsibility for this disaster cannot be properly allocated. As Burke and many theorists of identity are fond of noting, identification is not a purely positive process but occurs on the basis of negative differentiation: to square one’s self with an ongoing economic catastrophe requires the dissociation of one from the conditions that contributed to that catastrophe, unless the mortification process is pursued to its fullest extent.
Obama here explains the economic crisis as an error, something that human agents have caused rather than a systemic expression or symptom of deeper problems in our socio-political milieu. This explanation does not demand an adjustment or reassessment of the relationship between American national identity and prosperity. The American people have lost their way, but they may once again find it. Obama’s speech relies heavily on the figure of the American “people” but neither as a class victimized by elites nor as a criminal class responsible for economic problems: instead, “the people” exist (though they are victims of circumstance), the government is their agent (but not to avenge them, only to defend them), and the current crisis will abate should America return to its intrinsic values.
As we now know, the crisis did not abate but intensified: while Obama won the election in a sweeping fashion, the economy continued to grind and stutter. And by February 2009, an organized conservative populism presented itself as the answer to an Obama administration that could not stop the bleeding (warranting an observation about the outsized expectations of the presidency, seeing as we were roughly only a month into Obama’s term when a new conservative revolt began). What to make of the rapid emergence of this opposition to Obama? It is tempting to cynically filter some of the explanation through the thesis that politics is warfare, and political opposition benefits not from compromise but opposition. This might be right and might explain part of why Republican intransigence grew so quickly into the Obama administration. But it does not explain the emergence and persistence of populist themes in the emerging mode of new post-Obama political conservatism. What this essay has suggested is that the populist themes nurtured in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Bros. and the TARP relief package were not brought out and either resolved or distributed by Obama’s rhetoric, but instead only partially acknowledged, leaving a reservoir of anxiety and public discontent as part of a public mood. By committing neither to a populist polemic nor to a fully introspective mortification-driven “perspective by incongruity”, “the people” remain a figure invested in Obama for his steady hand during the early moments of the economic crisis, but also a figure subject to later capture by conservative forces who suggested the president had not fully identified with their anger and anxiety.