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The Stimulus Imbroglio: What Obama Might Have Learned From Chávez and Populist-Style Mobilization

When historians look back, they will point to Obama’s inauguration as a missed opportunity. At the zenith of his popularity, the new President might have used his bully pulpit to declare the need for a good economic stimulus, one which would have aided people who were strapped for cash. Instead of delivering a cliché-ridden, mundane and thoroughly unmemorable speech, Obama should have talked forcefully about the need to expand programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps. He might have made a poignant plea for providing relief to state and local government which had been pummeled by the ever deepening recession. If he had gone back to campaign mode, eloquently rallying the crowd on the Washington mall for an equitable stimulus to reverse worsening inequality brought on by the GOP, he would have really gotten his presidency off to a bang.

Obama had the country in his hands and the Republicans at his mercy. But now, it looks like the GOP has the upper hand. What happened? In an effort to attract House Republican support for the stimulus, Obama fashioned about one third of the package out of tax cuts, which the GOP loves. For all his gracious overtures, Obama was rewarded with a complete and total rebuke: not a sole Republican Representative voted for the $819 billion bill, which passed 244-189.

Having been snubbed in the House, Obama now got clobbered in the Senate. For a week at least the GOP went on the offensive on the cable news shows, talking about the need to rein in wasteful spending. The momentum started to shift, and Obama found that he had to beg for every last vote. At the end of the day he managed to attract three moderate Republicans and the Senate reached a tentative deal, but only at a tremendous political price: the final bill amounting to $780 billion shaved off more spending, “much of it among the most effective and most needed parts of the plan” according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. The deal was particularly damaging, Krugman adds, because it cut out $40 billion in aid to desperate, cash-strapped state governments.

What went wrong and how could Obama’s political clout have gone down so dramatically in just two or three weeks? In a sense, the young President’s failure to rally public opinion is perplexing. During the presidential campaign, the Illinois Senator demonstrated exceptional ability to organize, inspire and mobilize millions of supporters. But Obama failed to successfully capitalize on his mass base to help pass the stimulus, choosing instead to concentrate much of his effort on courting Republican lawmakers. Not only did he fail to sway the GOP to his side, but the President probably discouraged many within his old base which was ready to take on entrenched interests.

At long last Obama seems to have realized the gravity of his situation and has turned up his rhetoric somewhat by attacking the Republicans and Wall Street. This coming week, he will embark on a PR blitz by traveling to Elkhart, Indiana, and Fort Myers, Florida, where he will conduct town hall meetings to whip up support for the recovery package. Imagine for a moment however if Obama had hit the ground running and carried out a poverty tour immediately following his inauguration. He could have staged a number of high profile rallies in public parks or stadiums across the country, talking about the need for a good stimulus. Imagine the psychological impact had Obama held a couple of mass marches through poor neighborhoods where people faced housing foreclosures. The President would have dominated the cable news cycle for a week or more through this type of strategy, making the GOP’s messaging campaign that much more difficult.

He could have rammed a better stimulus bill through the House, perhaps even amounting to more than a trillion dollars, and then dared the GOP to filibuster in the Senate. At this point, with the country tilting in his direction, it would have proved problematic to say the least for the Republicans to be obstructionist. Best of all, if Obama had gotten a good stimulus he would have been better positioned to take on future political battles such as health care. Instead, however, he finds that he must defend a very lukewarm bill that will probably not succeed in getting the country out of recession.

Hugo Chávez: The Master Populist

Though it might seem strange to say so, Obama might have learned a trick or two from Latin American populists like President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela during his recent scuffle with Republican lawmakers. Unlike Obama, who has distanced himself from his core base since winning the election, Chávez has understood the importance of mobilizing people before, during and after electoral campaigns. Indeed, if Chávez had not mobilized the poor and disenfranchised it is doubtful whether he would have had such a long and enduring presidency [Chávez has been in power for ten years; his term expires in 2012 unless the President succeeds in passing a constitutional referendum which would allow him to run again for another six year term].

Like Obama, Chávez came to power at a time of acute economic and political crisis. Instead of resting on his laurels however, the President set about encouraging so-called participatory democracy through such mechanisms as the new 1999 constitution which declared the need for popular mobilization. Civil society participated in the drafting of the constitution through a variety of forums, workshops and committees.

Chávez followed that up by creating the Bolivarian Circles in 2000 which had originally functioned as community groups studying the Venezuelan Constitution. Later, the Circles began to address larger concerns such as health and education. During the 2002 coup which briefly dislodged Chávez from power, the Circles played a pivotal role in mobilizing people in the streets in defense of the President. Chávez later created the so-called Electoral Battle Units which got out the vote for government candidates.

After winning reelection in 2006, Chávez experimented with other forms of popular democracy. Under the guidance of the Ministry of Popular Participation and Social Participation, the authorities spurred the creation of the Communal Councils, local groups concentrating on public works projects. At the neighborhood level, council members were elected and each oversaw a separate issue such as youth services or health care.

On a psychological level, Chávez has proved to be a master of communication. A skillful orator speaking in a colloquial style, Chávez quickly bonded with the masses. The President routinely derided vaguely-worded enemies such as “the oligarchy.” Chávez also created his own TV call in show, Aló, Presidente!, which drew him closer to ordinary people.

For Latin American populists, it’s extremely important to create a sense of accessibility. If the people do not believe they have access, the populist will be unsuccessful at creating vertical ties between leader and the masses. In addition to his media strategy, Chávez has cultivated ties to his supporters by holding mass marches and rallies. He has even fashioned an official color for his supporters: red. Indeed, as I explain in my recent book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), color has served as an important badge of belonging and party identification for the Chavistas.

Obama’s Failure to Mobilize

Obviously Obama is not going to mobilize people to write a new constitution, create communal councils or give his followers an official color. Venezuela and the United States have a vastly different political culture and Chávez and Obama are totally dissimilar in terms of their temperament and style. Nevertheless, the idea of popular mobilization is hardly a foreign one to the United States, and there have been plenty of instances in the twentieth century when popular presidents have pushed their agenda by unconventional means.

During the Depression for example, Franklin Roosevelt relied on civil society groups to implement and carry out government policies. Rather than impose wage and price regulations to stabilize the economy, the government’s own National Recovery Administration allowed business associations to establish standards and actually empowered unions to enforce the rules. By supporting the Wagner Act and labor’s right to organize, Roosevelt got much needed union support and was able to mobilize new blocs of voters. The mobilization of civil society and the growth of the industrial union movement proved essential in Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 and deepened the President’s commitment to social democratic reform in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

We haven’t seen mobilization on that kind of scale for a long time though there are some more recent examples. In 1981, Ronald Reagan delivered multiple televised addresses and urged his supporters to call their members of Congress and demand tax cuts and reduced government spending on social programs. The President’s strategy paid off when people called Capitol Hill and Reagan’s legislation was passed over the objections of the Democratically-led House.

Obama is uniquely positioned to remake politics through the internet and to spur more popular engagement. Unlike Reagan or FDR, or recent Latin American populists for that matter, Obama has an amazing thirteen-million name contact list with 2 million volunteers. No president has ever entered office with this much information, which could truly revolutionize progressive politics. “It is a mechanism that could truly morph the power structure in Washington,” notes a recent article in Esquire magazine, “waking up the unused, overslept public…and making an end run around lobbyists and interest groups.”

Recently, Obama launched the formation of a new group known as “Organizing for America” which seeks to continue the grassroots advocacy of the presidential campaign and capitalize on the e-mail list. But up to now, “Obama 2.0” has failed to live up to its full potential. Belatedly, Organizing for America sent out an e-mail on January 30th, urging supporters to hold “house parties” designed to discuss the economic collapse and back Obama’s stimulus. By that point however, the GOP had already taken to the airwaves, effectively blunting the President’s message. What’s more, house parties are hardly the most effective method of grassroots organizing.

Could Obama be America’s first “techno-populist”? He has certainly squandered his first opportunity, begging the question of what the President has in store for Organizing for America. Perhaps, Obama has been listening too closely to party hacks such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who has disdain for the netroots. Or, perhaps Obama simply saw web organizing as a cynical tool to get elected and later abandoned. Either way, ignoring Web activism is hardly a positive blueprint for political success. While Obama is only in his third week at the Oval Office, his failure to achieve a meaningful stimulus will have far reaching consequences for his presidency.

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Populism and its long term consequences

In late 2007, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez narrowly lost a vote on a constitutional referendum which would have allowed the President to run again in future elections. Hardly discouraged, he pressed forward. On Sunday, people will vote on a similar referendum and in the event that Chávez wins, he could stand for reelection in 2012.

That’s an outcome which the opposition seeks to avoid at all costs. What Chávez really wants, the opposition claims, is to become a fledgling tyrant and to institutionalize his own personal power. Originally elected in 1998, Chávez is now serving his third term in office. While pushing his referendum, the Venezuelan President has said that he needs more time in office in order to secure vital socialist reforms.

For Chávez, holding the referendum is a big gamble. If he should lose on Sunday, the opposition will be able to claim its second straight victory. Already, the right is feeling more emboldened following its decent showing in local elections last year. As a result, victory on Sunday might lead the opposition to call for a presidential recall in 2010.

Currently polls show Chávez with a slight lead, but if the President simply ekes out a victory this could reinvigorate the opposition which had been swamped by Chávez in previous elections. Perhaps, if the President had done more to groom and promote a political successor, the Chávez forces would be in a more politically advantageous situation right now. By tirelessly campaigning for his own right to reelection, Chávez has given ammunition to the opposition and, arguably, imperiled the future of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution which has done much to bring social and economic benefits to Venezuela’s neediest.

The dilemma over the constitutional referendum underscores a larger problem. At long last, Chávez forces are running up against the structural limitations which characterize populist regimes. A charismatic leader, Chávez has established a tight bond with millions of Venezuela’s poor. Indeed, one might argue that the fervor that many feel for Chávez verges on the religious. Given this high level of adulation, finding a political successor to Chávez is a challenging task.

Possible heirs might include Julian Isaías Rodríguez, a former vice-president and Attorney General; Diosdado Cabello, a former army Lieutenant Colonel, Vice President, Minister of Interior and Justice and Governor of the provincial state of Miranda; José Vicente Rangel, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, or Jorge Rodríguez, who worked as a director of the National Electoral Junta as well as the nation’s Vice President.

There are a number of other promising and intriguing figures associated with the Chávez regime which I profiled in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), including the young Andrés Izarra, who headed up Telesur, a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela, and Nora Castañeda, who was appointed by Chávez to head the Women’s Development Bank in Caracas. Izarra and Castañeda however don’t have much of a political base and are even greater long-shots than Isaías Rodríguez, Jorge Rodríguez, Cabello or Rangel.

The fact that Chávez forces have not come up with alternative leaders is not very surprising in light of recent history. Chávez-style populism, which in certain respects resembles earlier Latin American populist variants, is characterized by an enormous focus on the individual leader and his dominant power—similar to the paternalistic hacendado on the traditional hacienda. In the populist model there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on unquestioned decision making power and seemingly “god-like” qualities that permit leaders to interpret the needs of the people and to chart the future trajectory of the state in order to satisfy those needs.

Populists whip up their own popularity and mythology by emphasizing a personal crusade. They rail against ill-defined “oligarchies,” entrenched political parties, local elites, the church or media establishment. Indeed, populists may seek to set up their own rival media in order to create a sense of public accessibility. Master orators, populists employ fiery, emotional rhetoric to establish a psychological connection with the people. They may seek to build up an image of themselves as the cultural epitome of the nation, while meanwhile channeling nationalism against various and sundry political threats. Hardly content to work within conventional political channels, they conduct militant street rallies and mass mobilization of civil society to achieve their long-term objectives.

While populist regimes in Latin America haven’t been particularly revolutionary, some have achieved a significant degree of economic redistribution. They may even succeed in empowering disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups for a time. The problem however is that populism is difficult to sustain in the long-term. Ideologically inchoate, populist movements rely on their leaders to provide vital political glue. Populism is socially heterogeneous and may succeed in bringing together a multi-class coalition, but only temporarily.

In the absence of a charismatic leader, populist movements may fall apart or languish. Will popular forces be able to advance in Venezuela if their leader falters? If Chávez does not win on Sunday or achieves only a modest victory, this question will be sorely put to the test.

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