Robert S. McElvaine: The Unwise Men’s Gifts to Obama

‘Tis the season for gift giving, and the President of the United States is in need of presents. With his approval rating dropping to, or below 50 percent in the latest polls and his health reform program a shadow of its former, Barack Obama could use some gifts to cheer him up and get his presidency back on track.

Fortunately for him, a group of Unwise Men from the East have appeared bearing just the gifts he needs, if he will but open and use them.

“Give Me More, More, Myrrh!”

The Unwise Men of Wall Street have brought wonderful gifts. Their gold is all for themselves. Their frankincense consists of actions that have frankly incensed the American people. And their myrrh is to be found in their attitude, which is: “Give me more, more, myrrh!”

These Magi have become alchemists, turning the lead of the economy that is sinking so many Americans into gold for themselves.

It is, of course, not the intention of the Unwise Men of Wall Street–not kings, but Masters of the Universe — to give valuable gifts to the current president. But the bright star they follow — their boundless greed — as led them to do so.

The Republican Party is firmly identified with these hated forces, traditionally known in the American populist lexicon as “The Interests.” As a result, the popularity of the GOP has not gone up as that of President Obama and the Democrats has declined.

Americans have at most times in the nation’s history distrusted bigness in government as much as they do in business. During the early years of the Great Depression, for example, government was routinely and bitterly portrayed in popular culture as ineffective and corrupt.

Popular attitudes toward the government changed dramatically, however, when Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 and cast the government as the champion of the people against “The Interests.” That was even more the case by 1936, when Roosevelt warned of the dangers of “organized money,” “business and financial monopoly, speculation, [and] reckless banking.”

“Never before in all our history,” Roosevelt proclaimed in the concluding speech of the campaign, “have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.”

With Republicans howling incessantly that the New Deal was bringing about socialism, Roosevelt won the largest percentage of the popular vote in American history up until that time, 60.8 percent of the popular vote and 98.5 percent of the electoral votes.

The lesson is clear: at times when confidence in big business has collapsed, the public is willing to set aside its usual distrust of government if government will take up their cause against the Interests. It is a simple matter of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” So far, Obama has not succeeded in convincing most people that he and his government are truly the enemy of the public enemies on Wall Street.

The popularity of both the government and the President would soar if he were to make it crystal clear that he is on the side of “the People.”

The Unwise Men’s Three Gifts

Which brings us back to the three gifts that Unwise Men have laid before the President for this Christmas season:

■ The fact that Wall Street firms made a record $50 billion in profits for the first three-quarters of 2009 — two-and-a-half times the previous record, was reported just in time for Christmas by New York State comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. And the Unwise Men did it in a year in which millions of Americans were suffering, the unemployment rate reached double digits, and bankruptcies and foreclosures soared — and a year in which several top firms made use of billions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money.

■ Estimates that the already outrageous average Wall Street bonuses may rise by 40 percent this year.

■ And, the Unwise Men’s biggest gift to the President, the un-Christmas “cards” the banks have been sending out to millions of ordinary Americans who make their credit card payments faithfully, informing them that their interest rates are being greatly increased, in many cases up to 30-percent interest and in one case to 79.9 percent.

These gifts provide President Obama with a golden opportunity to firmly identify himself with the people by forcefully and meaningfully attacking those Franklin Roosevelt called “economic royalists.” But these presents beneath the White House Christmas tree carry with them the dreaded words, “Some assembly required.”

The Key: A National Usury Law

The most effective way for President Obama to assemble these gifts into a device that can quickly restore his popularity is for him to denounce in very forceful, angry terms, all three of these actions by the Unwise Men and to focus on the third by demanding enactment of a national usury law. Such a move would be overwhelmingly popular and congressional votes on it would clearly answer the key question posed by the famous union song from the last Depression: “Which Side Are You On?”

The main reason for the President’s decline in popularity has been his failure so far to make his answer to that question clear. The foolish and greedy actions of the Unwise Men of Wall Street have now given him the perfect opportunity to provide the answer the public wants.

Being assured that the President is truly on our side would also be a great holiday gift for the American people.

Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. A 25th anniversary edition of his classic book, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, with a comprehensive new introduction comparing circumstances then and now, has just been published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.

Read more: Greed, Wall Street, Economic Royalists, Which Side Are You On, Christmas, Financial Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt, 1936 Election, Barack Obama, Usury, Great Depression, Politics News


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