Occupy Wall Street has already beaten the Tea Party
By David Callahan
The views expressed are his own.
Occupy Wall Street protestors are pondering their next steps after police raids this week dismantled more Occupy encampments in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In some ways, though, the movement has already scored its most important victory: It has changed the “narrative” that frames public debate. Polls show that the Tea Party story – about an America being destroyed by big government – has been pushed aside by the Occupy Wall Street story, which stresses rising inequality and corporate greed.
This is good news for President Obama. While there is little that Obama can do between now and next November to jumpstart the economy, he may have a strong chance at reelection anyway if Americans keep gravitating to a progressive worldview.
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken earlier this month, 76 percent agreed that the “current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.” In another recent poll, by The Washington Post/ABC News, respondents were asked: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans?” A majority – 60 percent – said the government should pursue such policies.
Meanwhile, public concern about the Tea Party’s linchpin issues – taxes and the deficit – has receded. Asked in late October to name the most important issue facing the country, just 5 percent of respondents to a New York Times/CBS News poll named the budget deficit. A majority said jobs and the economy. This same poll included another result that should give Democrats hope: A strong 69 percent of respondents agreed that the policies of Republicans in Congress “favor the rich” while just 12 percent thought the same thing about Obama’s policies.
Clearly, it is too early to count Obama out – even if it’s true that no president since FDR has won re-election with the economy in such bad shape.
To keep this new wind at Obama’s back, and to beat the historic odds, the White House needs to find ways to amplify the inequality narrative in coming months. Obama got off to a strong start when he proposed the Buffett Rule back in September (just a day after Occupy Wall Street set up camp in Zuccotti Park). And he has stayed on track this fall by pushing both higher taxes on the rich and new spending for job creation in appearances around the country.
But let’s be real here: tax hikes and big new spending plans aren’t going anywhere on Capitol Hill right now. And it’s hard to influence public debate with ideas that disappear into a black hole. What Democrats need are proposals that can both engage Republican lawmakers and feed public angst at being left in the dust by the top 1 percent.
That’s a tall order, but here’s one idea that could thread the needle: Tax reform. Nearly everyone in Washington wants to streamline the IRS’s Swiss cheese tax code and – with congressional approval at record lows – both parties have an interest in showing they can get something — anything — done on Capitol Hill.
Tax reform could have the biggest payoff for Obama. He should keep his efforts toward a fairer tax system, and less inequality, on top of the national agenda. A progressive tax reform plan would go after the plethora of tax breaks that favor wealthy individuals and corporations – while also creating a simplified, more efficient tax system and raising new revenues.
We got hints of this potential strategy earlier in the fall, when Obama called for eliminating tax breaks for corporate jets and oil companies at the same time as he proposed the Buffett Rule. A grander initiative would go after a bigger swath of corporate tax breaks – or all of them, as proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Commission last year. Ending the special treatment of capital gains and dividends, which dramatically favors the wealthy, should also be part of any plan.
In addition, Obama should push to restructure individual tax breaks that primarily benefit the well-off, like deductions for home mortgage interest and 401(k)s. It’s wrong that millionaires can write off the interest on their vacation homes while struggling renters get no help at all from the tax code. And it’s wrong to give the affluent big tax breaks for saving for retirement when 40 percent of Americans don’t have access to a 401(k) plan at work.
Inequality can feel like an abstract issue and voters may turn to other concerns before next November. But if Obama targets specific and grossly unfair ways that the rich get richer on the public’s dime, he could solidify what’s at stake in the new debate over inequality. It would be an epic battle with the legions of lobbyists who defend the 1 percent in Washington. But it would be his.
PHOTO: Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement hold a puppet of Former U.S. President George Bush as they re-enact a scene resembling a tea party in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street in New York October 14, 2011. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz