Barack Obama, Class Warrior?


Someday, when today’s adults are old and gray, their grandchildren will sit down and ask, “What did you do in the class war?” You may not have noticed, but it seems we are in the midst of one.

On this point, Republican candidates and officeholders are in agreement. Newt Gingrich accuses President Barack Obama of advocating “class warfare and bureaucratic socialism.” Mitt Romney says he is trying “to divide America.” Rick Santorum? “Class warfare.” Michele Bachmann? Ditto.

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Now a hedge-fund manager has become a Fox News hero for writing the president a letter depicting him as the evil twin of Fidel Castro. Obama, charges Leon Cooperman of Omega Advisors, is engaging in “desperate demagoguery,” treating the rich as a “selfish and unfeeling lot who must be subjugated by the force of the state,” employing a strategy “that never ends well for anyone but totalitarians and anarchists.”

Maybe cold showers are in order. Obama, it’s true, has proposed a small increase in tax rates on the wealthy, but nothing draconian by historical standards. His purportedly populous speech Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kan., had his usual quota of dubious data, blame for his predecessor and economic folly. Incendiary, however, it was not.

His stress was not on punishing the rich or getting revenge on those who caused the financial crisis. It was about enlarging the middle class. His rhetoric consisted of lines like, “We’re greater together than we are on our own” and “I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot.”

If there’s class warfare going on, Obama is not going to get any medals. Even when he laments rising inequality, his remedies don’t involve punitive redistribution.

His advocacy of higher marginal income tax rates focuses on the need to increase revenue to reduce the federal deficit. And let’s face it: If he and Congress aren’t going to make drastic cuts in spending — which they are not — more revenue will be needed, and it’s not going to come from poor people, because they don’t have any money.

It’s been so long — blessedly long — since mainstream Democrats preached class warfare that Republicans have forgotten what it sounds like. Franklin Roosevelt said of business and finance titans, “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

Harry Truman, now revered by conservatives, attacked “Republican gluttons of privilege” who had “stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back” and favored “a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship.” He also nationalized the steel industry.

When steel companies raised prices, President John F. Kennedy fumed publicly, “My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now.” He responded by ordering wiretaps on the phones of executives.

But scorching populism exploiting mass envy is almost extinct in the Democratic Party. President Jimmy Carter didn’t follow the tradition. Neither did Bill Clinton. Obama’s cautious pragmatism makes him the despair of the Occupy Wall Street legions.

His proposed tax increases fall short of soaking the rich. Under FDR, the top individual income rate was 94 percent. Under Kennedy, it was 91 percent. Under Lyndon Johnson, it was 70 percent. Under Reagan, it was 50 percent. Obama, the blood-curdling class warrior, would make it 39.6 percent.

He reflects the evolution of his party, which favors a broad social safety net but accepts the need for largely free markets. Price controls, once beloved by Democrats, have long since ceased being an option. Breaking up big companies is off the table. But Republicans won’t take “yes” for an answer.

If there were ever a time when hatred of rich capitalists and corporations would be expected, it’s now, in the wake of a financial crisis and brutal economic downturn. If it’s out there, though, it’s not manifesting itself in White House policy.

Obama is unquestionably a liberal who believes in preserving the main surviving elements of the New Deal and the Great Society, such as Social Security, food stamps and Head Start. There is plenty to criticize in his economic program — from misguided stimulus extravaganzas to the auto industry bailout to subsidies for expensive “green energy.” But he’s not the radical of right-wing mythology.

The reality should be plenty for his critics to worry about. When they read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, they should remember the section of the bookstore where they found it: fiction.




  • Steve Chapman

    Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 1981. He came to the Tribune from The New Republic magazine, where he was an associate editor. He has contributed articles to Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and Reason, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio news programs, including The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. Born in Brady, Texas, in 1954, Chapman grew up in Midland and Austin. He attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, and graduated with honors in 1976. He has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has served on the Visiting Committee of the University of Chicago Law School.

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