NEW YORK - I'm in New York City for tonight's annual gala for the Progressive States Network. In researching my newspaper column that comes out later this week, I caught two stories on the wire that suggest Barack Obama thinks its possible to both represent the populist uprising that I describe in my book, while also undermining that uprising.
Here's the first story, from the Associated Press about the Obama campaign trying to court labor unions.
Yet, as Obama courts organized labor, we get this from Fortune magazine:
Obama: NAFTA not so bad after all
The general campaign is on, independent voters up for grabs, and Barack Obama is toning down his populist rhetoric - at least when it comes to free trade. In an interview with Fortune to be featured in the magazine's upcoming issue, the presumptive Democratic nominee suggests he doesn't want to unilaterally blow up NAFTA after all. "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA "devastating" and "a big mistake."
Clearly, Fortune breathlessly overstates what's going on here (which is typical of "journalist" Nina Easton), and I think Obama could be solid on trade. However, I'd still say this really shows the persistent power of Big Money over Obama and the Democratic Party. Here you have a policy - NAFTA - that is among the most unpopular policies of the last generation, according to polls. This is a policy that is one of the key catalysts in today's populist uprising on both the Right and Left. Here you have a candidate who campaigned against it in the primary. And within weeks of getting the general election, here you have that same candidate running to Corporate America's magazine of record to vaguely reassure Wall Street about that same policy.
This is precisely what the populist uprising that I describe in my new book is all about - a backlash to this kind of politics.
Obama is trying to find a "third way" on a binary issue. He's trying to make everyone happy - and he seems to think you can simultaneously appease Corporate America and American workers on trade rules that inherently force politicians to take one side or the other. You either have trade rules that are aimed at helping ordinary workers, or trade rules that are aimed at padding corporate profits and enriching a transnational elite. The idea that you can have both - or worse, that the NAFTA model does both - is absurd.
But this is Obama's M.O. - he wants to please everyone. The problem for him is that the public - based on polls - knows that these policies are binary and are screwing them. If he talks out of both sides of his mouth on this issue, he will fail to represent the uprising and take advantage of this populist moment - and he will likely lose the election. That would be a huge tragedy.