It's hard to escape the feeling that President Obama is enthusiastic about the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Late last week, his senior adviser, David Plouffe, told the Washington Post that his campaign intends to make anti-Wall Street sentiment "one of the central elements of the campaign next year."
At a press conference earlier this month, Mr. Obama said the protest "expresses the frustrations that the American people feel -- that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street, and yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place. So, yes, I think people are frustrated, and the protestors are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works."
"Obama Extends Support for Protesters" was the headline in the Financial Times on Monday.
One half-expects the president to drop by Zuccotti Park himself, and, George W. Bush-Ground Zero style, grab a bullhorn and join in.
When the president's critics deride him for using "Chicago" tactics, they used to mean hardball, backroom political deals verging on corruption. But the Chicago school that is surging at the moment isn't that of the Daley family machine. Mr. Obama's chief of staff, William Daley, said last week he'd leave the White House after the 2012 election. No, the Chicagoan whose vision is on the rise is Saul Alinsky, whose 1971 book Rules for Radicals, when I checked, was no. 1 in "Civics" on the Amazon.com list.
The Obama administration figure more commonly associated with Alinsky is Hillary Clinton, who interviewed him for her senior honors thesis in political science at Wellesley College: "'There Is Only the Fight...': An Analysis of the Alinsky Model."
But it is Mr. Obama himself who worked as a community organizer in Alinsky's hometown of Chicago, who taught at the University of Chicago (from which Alinsky graduated), and who, in 1988, contributed a chapter to the book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.
Some highlights from Alinsky's Rules for Radicals: "The thirteenth rule: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." And "Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society." Remember that about conflict and polarization the next time you hear President Obama (or his ally Warren Buffett) talk about "millionaires and billionaires" or "corporate jet owners" and "fat cats" or "people who shuffle money around all day" and contrast them with public school teachers or firefighters or student loan recipients.
At one point, Alinsky suggests that "a thousand or more people" descend on a bank, "each with $5 or $10 to open up a savings account." "The bank's floor functions would be paralyzed," he says, apparently pleased.
"Remember we are talking about revolution," Alinsky reminds his readers. "On the top are the Haves with power, money, food, security and luxury. They suffocate in their surpluses while the Have-Nots starve."
In his 1969 Afterword to his 1946 Reveille for Radicals, Alinsky writes, "Our world has always had two kinds of changers, the social changers and the money changers. History is made up of the constant conflict between the two — witness the renowned account in the New Testament of Christ in the Temple."
Not everything Alinsky had to say was wrong. In that same 1969 Afterword, he was farsighted in warning of "New York's unique and gigantic welfare industry," and of the way government funding of the charities "blurs the line between the public and private domain." "Those of us committed to volunteerism as a basic concept in democracy are seriously concerned" about that arrangement, he said, adding that "The concentration and centralization of power, authority, and office in the hands of a few has reached an unprecedented high water mark in city, state, and national government."
Still, imagine if, instead of the Chicago tradition of Saul Alinsky, President Obama had taken up the free market tradition of such University of Chicago professors as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Epstein, Gary Becker, Eugene Fama, and John Cochrane.
Then, instead of joining in the protests against "the 1%" or the banks, Mr. Obama might have been able to explain to the American people that while the banks and bankers aren't blameless, blaming them alone isn't accurate, and it doesn't solve the problem. Plenty of fault lies in Washington and with American consumers, too. He might explain why, as he put it the other day, "we have to have a strong, effective financial sector in order for us to grow." He might not make it sound like some sort of necessary evil. He might instead describe banking as a calling that, at best, requires wisdom, judgment, integrity, skill, hard work, reputation, excellence, knowledge, and experience.
If he did that, President Obama wouldn't be protesting, he'd be leading.
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