I didn't intend to write about a four-day-old article, but as I was sorting through NPR's coverage this week of the AIG bonuses, I came upon this gem from Mara Liasson on Tuesday's ATC. The premise of Liasson's article "AIG Complicates Obama's Strategy" is that "a wave of populist outrage" over the AIG bonuses presents political difficulties for the Obama administration. However, something ugly was going on with Liasson's use of the word "populist."
The most common definition of "populism" is a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite. Indubitably, there has been plenty of outrage over the use of the taxpayer-funded bailout to give bonuses to wealthy financial executives. However, another common definition of populism, with a much more negative connotation, is: "a political strategy based on a calculated appeal to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people." It is this second connotation that drives Liasson's story.
This was most clear when Liasson claimed that Obama "let the stage directions show, just a little bit," when he joked that a catch in his throat was due to being choked up with anger over the AIG bonuses. Her point evidently being that the entire press conference was merely posturing necessary to "surf a wave of populist anger."
Of course, I don't know the hearts of Obama, Geithner, et al., any better than Liasson does, but this is an extremely cynical take, considering that are very good reasons to have serious concerns regarding the bailout of AIG and other financial institutions. Rather than admit those concerns, Liasson dismissed them as "populist backlash," and described the Congressional debate over the issue as a "fullblown pitchfork rebellion."
The problem, according to Liasson, is not the very real and justifiable concerns about the bailout, but the fact that the Obama administration is now "torn between attacking and defending some of the financial entities it needs to prop up in order to secure economic recovery." Obama's challenge, she says, is to convince voters/taxpayers that "the bailout money won't be used again in a way that insults taxpayers values." Excuse me, but these issues involve significant, quantifiable realities--budgets, salaries, layoffs, not to mention the transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars of public funds--not simply taxpayers' values (read "opinions").
Needless to say, it would be much more informative and useful if NPR were to report on the substance of the economic policy issues, rather than simply engaging in political scorekeeping while dismissing the actual debate as merely calculated posturing to mollify the pitchfork-wielding rubes.