The news from the White House for the past week, post-Massachusetts and pre-State-Of-The-Union, has had a decidedly Populist bent to it. So, when thinking about how to cover President Obama's first official yearly address to a joint session of Congress (last year's didn't count, officially), I thought it would be appropriate to check in with the Populist Caucus once again.
I first interviewed the Chairman of the Populist Caucus last year (Democratic Representative Bruce Braley, from Iowa) soon after their formation. He was graciously willing to talk to me today, and even suggested doing two interviews -- one before and one after the speech. So we will be presenting this article in two parts, which isn't exactly "liveblogging," but is about as close as you can get with someone who will actually be sitting in the room listening to President Obama speak tonight. I encourage everyone to check back here after the speech is over, to read Braley's immediate reactions to what Obama had to say.
The Populist Caucus was formed almost exactly a year ago, on February 12, and has since grown from 23 members to 30 (the last of whom just joined in the past few days). With Populism obviously being the new White House theme, it seems more than likely that this group will grow in the coming year, as more and more Congressmen realize that Populism may be the overarching theme not just of one presidential speech, but also of this November's midterm elections.
Modern Populism, in the spirit of its historical forerunners, is focused on getting legislation passed that benefits the American middle class -- the most important political demographic group in existence. Last year, when asked about the difference between the Populist Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, Braley had this to say:
There are a number of Progressive Caucus members who are Populists, but the Progressive Caucus tends to focus on a broad range of foreign and domestic policies. The Populist Caucus is the only caucus in Congress devoted solely to addressing middle class economic issues. We formed the caucus because the founding members felt like there wasn't enough focus on middle class issues in Washington, and we're going to keep it focused on middle class issues. I think that Blue Dogs, Progressives, and New Democrats can all find common ground on middle class issues, which is why we formed this caucus -- to bring people together and to expand and strengthen the middle class.
Which sounds very timely indeed, if the leaks about what Obama will include in his speech are to be given credence.
When I talked with Braley today, I intentionally (for the most part) kept the focus of the conversation on the speech itself, and what his hopes and expectations from the speech were. After the speech is over, we will talk with Braley once again, to get his reactions and response to Obama's speech. Once again, I invite everyone back here approximately an hour or so after the speech is over, to read Chairman Braley's reaction to it.
[If you're interested, more information on the Populist Caucus can be found at the Populist Caucus webpage, which Chairman Braley has created on his official House webpage.]
Populist Caucus Chairman Bruce Braley
Photo credit: Office of Rep. Bruce Braley
Before the speech
Congratulations on the Populist Caucus's upcoming first anniversary. I notice you've now got 30 members, up from your original 23. Do you expect to see more House Democrats joining the caucus this year, now that Populism is apparently going to be a big part of President Obama's agenda for the upcoming legislative year?
We started the Populist Caucus for the sole purpose of strengthening America's middle class families. As the Congress' legislative agenda begins to focus more closely on the priorities that matter to Main Street Americans -- the right to a decent education, a good paying job, access to quality and affordable healthcare, fair trade policies, and consumer protection from powerful corporations—I think more of my colleagues will understand the value of these core Populist principles. We certainly hope and expect that as more members learn about our cause and develop an interest in crafting meaningful legislation that will strengthen our middle class families, the Populist Caucus will welcome them with open arms and continue to grow.
If President Obama came to you and asked what your top two or three priorities were for new Populist legislation, what would you say to him?
The key to any successful recovery for America's Middle Class must focus on three priorities: Compensation, Speculation and Job Creation. In the Populist Caucus, we've put together four legislative initiatives that we believe are a "Blueprint to Recovery."
Compensation: We need to change the culture of limitless bonuses by passing the Wall Street Bonus Tax Act (H.R. 4426). The targeted tax would apply only to executives at banks that received Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funding who took bonuses in excess of $50,000. The Wall Street Bonus Tax Act would generate billions of dollars of new revenue that would be directed exclusively to reward small businesses who are investing in new jobs.
Speculation: We need to stop excessive and risky speculation on Wall Street by passing the Let Wall Street Pay for the Restoration of Main Street Act (H.R. 4191). This legislation would reinstate a tiny transaction fee on speculative stock transactions by Wall Street traders, creating $150 billion annually in new revenue that would be dedicated to job creation and reducing the deficit.
Job Creation: We need to take the following two-pronged approach to creating good-paying jobs that can't be outsourced: We need to pass The National Infrastructure Development Bank Act (H.R. 2521), which would establish a wholly-owned government corporation to prioritize infrastructure improvement projects that would create good paying jobs. We also need to pass the Buy American Improvement Act (H.R. 4351) to eliminate loopholes in existing domestic sourcing laws and ensure that taxpayer money is used to purchase American-made products and support American jobs whenever possible.
These four pieces of legislation represent true populist policies that are about building America up... not tearing it down.
What do you expect to hear in President Obama's State of the Union speech tonight that will make the Populist Caucus happy?
I think the most important thing the President can do is let middle class families know that he understands their concerns and their frustrations. For too long, our economic agenda has focused on restoring Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. I think President Obama will serve himself well if he is able to effectively communicate a real desire to answer the passionate pleas of the millions of middle class Americans who rallied to elect him.
What would you really like to hear -- but don't expect to hear -- in the President's speech?
I would like to hear President Obama outline a clear agenda, like the Populist Caucus' Blueprint for Recovery, to create good-paying jobs that can't be outsourced for America's middle class families. A "jobless recovery" isn't a recovery for middle class families and the President and his Administration need to understand that.
I'd also like to hear the President make a firm commitment to getting out of Washington more frequently to meet with middle class Americans -- people who have lost their jobs, who can't afford their health care and who don't have Ivy League degrees -- so he can truly understand the challenges many families are facing.
The word "populism" was applied (for different reasons), during the 2008 campaign, to both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Do you see any common ground between what Populist Democrats advocate and the current "Tea Party" movement on the right, or are they so far apart that the gap is unbridgeable?
A lot of America's middle class families are justifiably concerned and upset about the direction of our country. Populism isn't about pitchforks and torches. It's about giving voice to the legitimate concerns of Americans who make America great. They watched their hard-earned tax dollars rescue the same Wall Street banks that created this financial crisis, all while waiting anxiously for the Recovery to come to THEIR street. Once we get the economy working again for America's working families, I believe that a lot of that anger and frustration will dissipate and we'll be able to find more common ground.
After the speech
What was your reaction to the President's speech tonight, Chairman Braley?
Tonight's speech by President Obama underscores what many of us in Congress have been saying all along: the key to a full recovery is to strengthen America's middle class by investing in small businesses, job growth, and infrastructure development while also finding ways to pay down our national deficit.
Tonight, President Obama outlined an agenda that gives middle class families many of the tools they need to recover, while also making oil companies, hedge fund managers and the richest one percent of Americans finally pay their fair share.
I was especially pleased to hear President Obama's ideas to spur job creation by investing in Iowa's small businesses and communities.
In the past year, we cut more than 25 taxes for middle class families and I applaud President Obama's for supporting the elimination of capital gains taxes for small businesses and a temporary payroll tax credit for businesses who hire unemployed workers.
America's families can no longer afford inaction. I hope that tonight's speech sends a clear signal to middle class Americans that we hear their concerns about the direction of our country and that we will show strong leadership on the issues they care about most.
Thank you for taking the time to share your response with us tonight.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant