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In a Feb. 2, 1993 speech, President Bill Clinton promises to 'end welfare as we know it.' (J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images)

Faux Vox Populi

Will Obama’s promises to fix inequality turn out to be as hollow as Clinton’s were?

BY Chris Lehmann

Obama's coming “year of action” looks like another election-driven embrace of pseudo-populist evasive tactics.

Some two decades and six presidential election cycles ago, candidate Bill Clinton delivered a persuasive attack on Reaganomics. He told campaign crowds that his wife, Hillary, had come across a definition of insanity as trying the same thing over and over but expecting different results. That was the problem, he complained, with the Republican Party’s allegiance to “trickle-down economics” in the 1992 recession: By peddling a destructive series of unworkable nostrums as a response to a massive economic crisis, the supply-side Right was out of its mind. If Americans would only vote in Clinton and his populist program of economic stimulus, sweeping healthcare reform and worker-friendly initiatives, then both prosperity and sanity would be restored.

Of course, things didn’t end up anything like that. There was a sustained boom in the paper economy during Clinton’s reign, but it didn’t trickle down. By most measures, wealth inequality increased on Clinton’s watch—as one would expect, seeing that the president embraced NAFTA, ended federal income supports for families with dependent children and disastrously deregulated the derivatives trade and investment banking at large. Oh, and he didn’t give the country a stimulus or healthcare reform, either.

And to judge by the state of the debate over wealth inequality in 2014, the same wearisome populist bait-and-switch is well underway. Our incumbent president, who has presided over his own anti-worker neoliberal economic agenda of bailouts, tax cuts and free trade deals, has seen wealth inequality rise on his watch. Nevertheless, Barack Obama, too, has pledged to put the burning issue of inequality at the center of the 2014 election cycle, which finds beleaguered Democrats desperate to gin up credible populist appeals to the electorate in the sixth-year-and-counting of a jobs-starved recovery-in-name-only. In the State of the Union address, Obama vowed “a year of action” to promote “mobility” in the workforce. (Note how the structural woes of inequality have been brushed aside in favor of a more upbeat, and presumably better-polling, evocation of the American Dream.) To kick things off, the president announced that he would issue an executive order to boost the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors.

Beyond that gesture, though, the coming “year of action” looks like another election-driven embrace of pseudo-populist evasive tactics. For example, in the realm of higher education—where yawning gaps in access and affordability tend to have the greatest distorting effect on equality in the information economy—Obama’s record is distinctly counter-populist. Families earning more than $100,000 a year receive an average of $10,200 in federal aid, while those earning $20,000 or less net a meager $8,000.

Such a routine distortion of basic economic fairness is a legacy of New Democrat policy-making, and it’s long past time to consider whether it makes any sense to entrust the crafting of a just economic agenda to the leadership class in Washington. For while wages remain largely stagnant, food stamp outlays are gutted, and steady work recedes into a gossamer dream for the long-term unemployed, federal lawmakers are making out as never before. In January, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that for the first time a majority of sitting members of Congress (268 of 534) are millionaires (measured in overall net worth)—compared to less than 10 percent of the American population.

So when that great utopian moment arrives and a future Supreme Court overturns the Citizens United ruling, let us turn our revived campaign-finance efforts toward one goal: Driving down the cost of electioneering so as to allow ordinary Americans to vote people into power who might legislate in some informed fashion on wealth inequality—that is to say, lawmakers who’ve experienced the crippling effects of our age’s greatest socioeconomic scourge firsthand. By now, after all, that talent pool makes up a good deal of the U.S. population. In the meantime, expecting the rest of us to sit still for yet more meritocratic subterfuges that serve to reinforce our pathologically unjust distribution of wealth seems like, well, a textbook definition of insanity.

Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is an editor of Book Forum and the Baffler and the author of Rich People Things (Haymarket, 2011). He is now working on a book about American religion and the money culture.

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