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David Sirota Headshot

That Old Saying In Tennessee

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"There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee -- that says, fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again." - George W. Bush, 9/17/02

George W. Bush is not the world's brightest - or most articulate - man. Indeed, it often feels as if Simple Jack has been our president for the last 8 years. But occasionally, his most hilarious gaffes have an idiot savant quality to them in that they (inadvertently) express the deepest human truths. One of those, as I point out in my newspaper column this week (and as shown in the above clip) is the truth about fooling people - and how you can't pull the same trick on the public twice, and expect to get away with it. It's an important lesson for President-elect Obama - one he doesn't yet seem to get or care about, if his behavior on the bank bailout is any indication.

After campaigning on populist economic themes, and promising that one of his first presidential priorities would "turn(ing) the page on policies that have put the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street before the hard work and sacrifice of folks on Main Street," Obama decided to make his very first exercise of presidential power a veto threat aimed at keeping taxpayer money flowing to the same Wall Street firms that underwrote his campaign, and are underwriting his inauguration festivities.

This is disappointing, to say the least. As the column shows, the policy merits of the bailout are few - if any. And you don't have to trust me on that - trust the GAO, the Congressional Oversight Panel and various news organizations that have shown how the money A) hasn't helped the broader economy and B) is being used to subsidize executive salaries, dividend payments and bank industry consolidation. Indeed, the New York Times reported this week that "the Treasury says there is no urgent need" for Congress to approve the next $350 billion of the bailout.

So why the rush? It's money politics in its most mundane - and predictable - form. Both parties Washington Establishments - including both Bush and Obama - know that the easiest way to pass a wildly unpopular $350 billion payoff to their donors is to quickly pass it in the middle of a presidential transition, so no one politician or party has ownership over it.

Polls show the public has always opposed this bailout, but they also showed that the original alarmism in September scared the country. It wasn't enough to get people to say they supported the bailout, but it was enough to mitigate the intensity of the opposition.

The same, I believe, won't be said this time around. With the failure of the first half of the bailout - with Wall Streeters still pocketing huge bonuses/salaries, with the economy not rising, etc. - and with Treasury acknowledging this next $350 billion isn't immediately necessary, what was once rationalized as a necessary emergency bitter pill now looks like what it really is: the most overt effort to rob taxpayers in contemporary history.

Though the rationales and explanations from Obama and other bailout supporters in Washington will try to muddle the picture with references to complexity and economic fatalism, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the kleptocracy at work. To the average $40,000-aire, it looks like at a time of recession, skyrocketing health care costs, and slashed wages, the government - and specifically, Obama - is responding first and foremost by forcing every man, woman and child in America to cough up about $1,100* and give it to millionaires in Manhattan - the same millionaires who comprise the political donor class, the same millionaires who created this economic crisis in the first place. And you know what - that's basically what's going on, and with the U.S. Senate's happy approval. Indeed, to date, no political leader has seriously articulated how spending this $350 billion on a Wall Street bailout is a better way to boost the economy than spending it on universal health care or a jobs-creating public infrastructure program.

After the 2008 election's focus on "change," it's an understatement to say the endurance of kleptocracy in American politics is something to behold. It's something to be in awe of, really. And it once again reminds us why a durable, long-term social movement - not just one or two elections or candidates - is needed to really start rebuilding our country.

In the short-term, we may still have a shot at forcing one half of Congress to go on record in opposition to this bailout. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) has said he's not sure whether the House will be able to vote down the measure rejecting the next $350 billion - meaning everyone should either sign the petition against the bailout, or contact their House members directly. Congress simply handing a president - any president, including Obama - a $350 billion blank check without any legislative mandate for transparency, oversight or direction, is a clear abdication of the legislative branch's constitutional responsibilities, regardless of platitudes about how much we should simply "trust" Obama more than Bush.

In the medium-term, the more pushback and pressure Congress and Obama feels in passing this next bailout tranche, the more likely we will to get them to support measures like bankruptcy reform. And in the long-term, the more we keep supporting Better Democrats like Tom Geoghegan - and the more we let Better Democrats/bailout flip-floppers like Jeff Merkley know we're watching - the more we build a truly powerful movement organized around economic justice and against money politics. It doesn't mean totally writing off Merkley or Obama - they will likely be good allies on many issues. But it means that voicing our displeasure with their actions has a long-term value - and that voicing our displeasure with them is not a sign of supposed "disloyalty."

Read the whole column here.

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* $350 billion divided by 300 million Americans equals about $1,100 per American.