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Playing the Poverty Card: Why Rich Democrats Talk About How Poor They Once Were

Wall Street–friendly liberals love making populist appeals.
June 11, 2014, 4:30pmUpdated on October 21, 2019, 4:00pm
Playing the Poverty Card: Why Rich Democrats Talk About How Poor They Once Were.
Fellow oligarchs Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigning together in 2008. Photo via Flickr user Nathan Forget

This week has offered a glimpse into the contortions involved in modern Democratic politics, with President Barack Obama and the onetime rival he's now grooming to replace him, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both doing their best to come across as normal Americans who were once debtors struggling to get by.

On Monday, while introducing an executive order that will hopefully reduce the monthly bills owed by some young people burdened with student loans, Obama did his best to convey empathy with the proletariat despite his status as a multimillionaire—and an economic team littered with Wall Street veterans.

"Neither Michelle nor I came from a lot of money, but with hard work, and help from scholarships and student loans, we got to go to great schools," he said. "Because of law school, we only finished paying off our own student loans just ten years ago. So we know what many of you are going through."

Similarly, in the midst of a media tour to promote her new book that may or may not be intended to facilitate a run for the White House, Clinton tried to recapture some of the folksy charm that had helped her husband—who was, in fact, born dirt poor in the deep South—seize the nation's imagination more than two decades ago.

"As I recall, we were something like $12 million in debt," Clinton told Good Morning America on Tuesday, referring to the legal bills she and her husband faced after his presidency ended. "What we faced when he got out of the White House meant that we just had to keep working really hard."

That is, to say the least, a pretty odd way for her to remember those years. For one thing, as Philip Bump wrote for the Washington Post, even if there was technically a brief stretch after the Clintons left the White House when they were underwater financially, the perks of post-presidential life in America—hefty speaking fees, multimillion-dollar book deals, millions more in pensions—are spectacular. By December 2000, Hillary had agreed to a deal with publisher Simon and Schuster for her memoir and got a whopping $8 million advance. That isn't exactly "working really hard" by most people's definition of the phrase. Rich politicians like the Obamas and Clintons (the latter dynasty is thought to be worth $50 million) are not like you or me—Hillary hasn't driven a car since 1996—so why are they trying to tell people that they feel their pain?

By ostentatiously, almost ceremoniously recalling their brief encounters with financial hardship, political elites like Obama and Clinton are engaging in a storied tradition of liberal politicking: Democrats must try, no matter how awkward it gets, to relate to the working poor who make up their party's base. The infuriating thing is that whereas past progressive leaders have rendered their personal wealth irrelevant by pushing policy in the direction of greater equality, those two celebrity politicians have, despite relatively modest roots, arguably subverted the interests of our massive, toiling underclass and helped entrench financial oligarchs since joining the ranks of America's super elite.

That the world is run by the wealthy isn't exactly breaking news. “You have to be rich to run for Congress,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told me. “Both parties want candidates to self-finance. This is what modern life is.”

Yet in the past, even when liberal politicians came from wealth or rubbed elbows with the rich, that didn't necessarily seem to determine their ideology. History is full of stories of monied lefties who lacked working-class roots and nonetheless managed to achieve tremendous good for the common people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a privileged child of America's gilded classes, but he made his name taking on financial titans, famously inveighing at a 1936 campaign rally in New York's Madison Square Guarden, "Never before in all our history have these forces [of concentrated wealth] been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred."

Roosevelt didn't have to fake the folksy populist charm shtick because his policies (and the anger they generated among captains of industry) spoke for themselves. The same can be said of JFK and his brother Ted Kennedy, who both wore their New England patrician roots on their sleeves while advocating for the poor. But after the tumult of the 1960s and 70s—and the flowering of various forms of strident left-wing activism that pissed off a lot of culturally conservative old white people—Democrats began taking greater pains to affect scrappy working-class appeal, even as they looked to the business world for money. Bill Clinton, while serving as governor of Arkansas in the 1980s, helped popularize the Democratic Leadership Council, essentially a corporate lobby that sought to steer the party toward neoliberalism and free-trade agreements like NAFTA as well as harsh cuts in government programs such as welfare (as a sort of concession to white supremacists). As the party tried to curry favor with the financial sector, it relied on pained salt-of-the-earth rhetoric to keep hold of anxious whites, and cynically assumed blacks and other core supporters had nowhere else to go.

"For so long government has failed us, and one of its worst failures had been welfare," Clinton said directly to the camera in a signature 1992 campaign TV spot. "I have a plan to end welfare as we know it—to break the cycle of welfare dependency." By this time, progressives' greatest enemy wasn't wealthy plutocrats but, instead, lazy inner-city parents.

Things have descended to the point where most Democrats with presidential ambitions don't even pretend not to be in bed with big money. Obama, the Clintons, their former protégé New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker all have ties to Wall Street, and no one honestly believes any of them would prioritize policies that might threaten the country's financial industry. Booker and Cuomo actually seem to think Wall Street is the chief driver of social change in this country, looking to financial executives to grease the wheels for reform projects like redeveloping Newark (where Booker was mayor) and passing gay marriage in New York. Meanwhile, a recent investigative report from the Huffington Post and the New Republic revealed that the Congressional Black Caucus, which is made up of formerly working-class politicians who have traditionally advocated progressive policies, has become a tool of Wall Street bankers and helped weaken the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law. Suffice it to say that Roosevelt has rolled over in his grave two or three dozen times by now.

That isn't to say there aren't any Democrats fighting for real economic reforms today. The most notable of these remains Elizabeth Warren, the former consumer advocate who has been making some noise as a leftist's dream candidate for president since she won a Senate seat in Massachusetts two years ago. Warren, whose mother could not afford a wedding gown and whose father's heart attack imperiled her family's very existence in midcentury Oklahoma, has been pushing for a law that would go a good bit further than Obama's executive order by allowing many Americans to refinance their student loans at lower rates. (It's worth nothing that despite plenty of policy bona fides and intellectual authority, in her most recent book Warren still felt compelled to lean on her personal narrative of struggle, à la Bill Clinton and Obama.)

Senate Republicans blocked Warren's proposal from even being considered on Wednesday after Obama indicated he would sign it. But at least some Democrats who have extensive knowledge of the psychological pain that comes with crushing debt—and, critically, are not hopelessly compromised by their ties to financial oligarchs—are talking about it publicly. Rather than using her hardscrabble personal story as a convenient prop to funnel money up the economic ladder, Warren seems to be leveraging it in a genuine attempt to change the game for borrowers. Unlike Obama and Hillary, we have no choice but to take her seriously.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

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