Labor Day at the White House

By Dan Froomkin
1:41 PM ET, 01/30/2009

Obama signs an executive order reversing Bush labor policy on Friday. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Citing ordinary Americans he met during the campaign who were experiencing "the American dream in reverse," President Obama today told an audience full of labor leaders that he has created a new task force, led by Vice President Biden, devoted to strengthening the country's middle class. He also signed four executive orders intended to "level the playing field" for labor unions.

It was Obama's second burst of populism after what I wrote had started to feel like a bit of a drought.

Yesterday afternoon, Obama came out swinging against Wall Street bankers who granted themselves lavish bonuses even as they asked to be bailed-out with tax dollars.

At this morning's event, Obama once again pitched his economic stimulus plan, in the name of "the folks who approached me on the campaign trail, in union halls, in church basements and coffee shops and VFW halls and shop floors, [who] told me about jobs lost and homes foreclosed, hours cut, and benefits slashed -- the costs of life slowly slipping away and chipping away at the hopes of affording college or a new home or retirement. It's like the American Dream in reverse. These are the families who have by no fault of their own been hit hardest as the economy has worsened.

"They need action -- now."

It was a homecoming of sorts for the labor movement. "Welcome back to the White House," Biden said to loud cheers.

"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it's part of the solution," Obama said, adding: "This isn't a either/or proposition between the interests of workers and the interests of shareholders. That's the old argument. The new argument is that the American economy is not and has never been a zero-sum game. When workers are prospering, they buy products that make businesses prosper. We can be competitive and lean and mean and still create a situation where workers are thriving in this country."

Yesterday, Obama used his photo-op with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to scold some members of the upper class. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Stephen Labaton write in the New York Times: "President Obama branded Wall Street bankers 'shameful' on Thursday for giving themselves nearly $20 billion in bonuses as the economy was deteriorating and the government was spending billions to bail out some of the nation’s most prominent financial institutions.....

"It was a pointed — if calculated — flash of anger from the president, who frequently railed against excesses in executive compensation on the campaign trail. He struck his populist tone as he confronted the possibility of having to ask Congress for additional large sums of money, beyond the $700 billion already authorized, to prop up the financial system, even as he pushes Congress to move quickly on a separate economic stimulus package that could cost taxpayers as much as $900 billion.

"This week alone, American companies reported as many as 65,000 job cuts, and public anger is rising over reports of profligate spending by banks and investment firms that are receiving help from the $700 billion bailout fund."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "The president said he was reacting to a New York Times report about Wall Street executives who had given themselves almost $20 billion in bonuses in 2008, the same amount they received collectively during the much more bullish 2004."

Dawn Kopecki and Julianna Goldman write for Bloomberg that Obama is feeding "a swelling populist revolt against Wall Street bonuses...

"The president joined politicians such as Senator Christopher Dodd, who today called for using 'every possible legal means to get the money back.'"

Chuck Todd reported on the NBC Nightly News that "outrage at Wall Street became the president's issue of the day... Channeling his inner populist, the president got upset about something that the public has been angry about for weeks."

And he showed a clip of Biden, in an interview with CNBC's John Harwood, saying: "I mean, I'd like to throw these guys in the brig."

Biden alluded yet again to the issue this morning, praising Obama for sending "very, very clear signal to everyone in this country who goes to work every day without expecting acclaim or big bonuses.... To this, the great American middle class, you have simply said, we're on your side again."

And in a USA Today op-ed this morning, Biden was highly critical of the Bush administration: "For years, we had a White House that failed to put the middle class front and center in its economic policies," Biden wrote.

"Over the course of America's last economic expansion, the middle class participated in very few of the benefits. But now in the midst of this historic economic downturn, the middle class sure is participating in all of the pain. Something is seriously wrong when the economic engine of this nation — the great middle class — is treated this way."

Will we regularly be seeing this much of Biden? Monica Langley writes in the Wall Street Journal that Biden "is striving to carve out meaty roles for himself quickly...

"Mr. Biden's team is positioning the vice president to play up his differences with Mr. Cheney. For example, Mr. Biden's new task force on middle-class families will have a Web site complete with details of all meetings, attendees and policies, in contrast to Mr. Cheney's energy task force, which he fought to keep secret in court. Mr. Biden's office is releasing daily the vice president's schedule, unlike Mr. Cheney, who often didn't disclose his schedule....

"'Vice President Biden will be more transparent, accessible, bipartisan and focused on middle-class values than Dick Cheney,' says a senior administration official. 'That doesn't mean he'll be less powerful.'"

Biden got a big laugh from the audience this morning when he announced: "This task force, I might add, which coming out of the Vice President's Office will be a bit unique, will be fully transparent -- totally transparent. (Laughter.) We are going to consult. We are going to consult -- (applause.) We are going to consult openly -- openly and publicly without outside groups, who can help us develop the most far-reaching, imaginative solutions to help us solve these problems and create the outcome we're looking for.

"And we'll put all the material from our meetings and any report we produce up on the website. None of this will happen behind closed doors. We want the American people engaged."

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