Obama’s problem with billionaires isn’t his economic policy: he just hurts their feelings

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“Hurt your feelings? You don’t want to see me when I’m hurting your feelings.”
“Hurt your feelings? You don’t want to see me when I’m hurting your feelings.”
Image: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

In The New Yorker last week, a former newsroom colleague of mine, Chrystia Freeland, profiled the hedge-fund manager Leon Cooperman as the leader of “The Billionaires Battling Obama.” The centerpiece of the article is a letter that Cooperman wrote a year ago to President Barack Obama. In it, he lamented the president’s ostensible perception of wealthy people as “a monolithic, selfish and unfeeling lot who must be subjugated by the force of the state.” He was unhappy with “the divisive, polarizing tone of your rhetoric [which] is cleaving a widening gulf, at this point as much visceral as philosophical, between the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them.”

Freeland concluded that not just Cooperman but many of “America’s super-rich feel aggrieved.” Why? “In part,” she writes, “because they believe themselves to be fundamentally different from a leisured, hereditary gentry,” the unflattering portrait of them that, in their view, Obama seems intent to depict. By and large, they got where they are by their bootstraps. But Obama simply “has a philosophy of disdain toward wealth creation,” a fund manager named Anthony Scaramucci told Freeland.

The affronted rich man may be the main untold subtext of the 2012 US presidential campaign. Around the country, swaths of the rich and powerful including financiers, Wall Street and the oil industry are politically engaged to a remarkable degree. Whether it is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s impression that Obama damaged his Las Vegas business, or resorts kingpin David Siegel’s threat to fire his 7,000 employees and move to the Caribbean if Obama wins, the opposition to the president seems deeply personal. They are collectively contributing hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort not so much to elect GOP nominee Mitt Romney, but to throw out Obama. This is no run-of-the-mill, self-interested revolt, but has the ring of a reverse French Revolution.

I first encountered this strain of the 2012 election while looking at the oil and gas industry. Big Oil is traditionally unabashed with its pro-Republican activism, but this year the oil and gas firms’ campaign contributions have favored the party of the right to an unprecedented degree. I asked John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell USA, whether he saw anything emotional in the industry’s opposition to Obama. “Your finger is right on the button,” he replied.

Even when Obama was a senator from Illinois he “continuously dissed the industry,” Hofmeister told me. As a candidate in 2008, he “attacked the industry.” As president, he “continued to badmouth the industry.” Himself a self-identified Democrat, Hofmeister said he had been driven away from Obama in part by the president’s “unbelievable arrogance.” “I’m bitter about the man because I have tried to work inside the tent, only to be continuously rebuffed and ignored,” he said. “He fundamentally ascribes [sic] to the [environmentally focused] Center for American Progress on its energy messages, and relies on that organization for his campaign materials.  He will not deal with energy reality and, should he win in November, the nation is headed for ever higher prices until the shortages begin, upon which event he will blame the industry, which has not distinguished itself meanwhile, and deserves the hostility it receives from the public.”

The financial industry is another sector miffed over Obama’s perceived “personal attacks on their character,” The Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) on Oct. 9. The last straw, the paper said, was the 2010 White House correspondents’ dinner, at which Obama ribbed bankers a couple of times. “All of the jokes here tonight are brought to you by our friends at Goldman Sachs. So you don’t have to worry—they make money whether you laugh or not,” Obama said. Did that cross the line? Goldman apparently thought so. All in all, the Journal reports, Goldman employees, who donated more than $1 million to Obama in the 2008 race, have given him just $136,000 this time, as against $1.8 million to Romney and a political action committee formed to support him.

Geoffrey Skelley, at the University of Virginia, suggests that we are simply watching business as usual. “Like any interest group, if the financial industry feels that a candidate opposes their interests, it will oppose that candidate,” Skelley told me. Similarly, Ray La Raja, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the cream of business has not suddenly become upset; it is simply more upset. “They are venting what they already believe about him,” La Raja said in an email.

This seems too pat. I’ve witnessed a few presidential elections now–including the ones I followed alongside my parents, this is the thirteenth. There is no surpassing the anger in the streets of 1968, and to a lesser extent in 1972; that would have been the Democrats. Republican anger was evident at the mid-term elections of 1994 and 2010. Yet in those cases, we are talking topical fury—the Vietnam War, general anti-Nixonianism, a conservative shift, an uprising against spending. There is something qualitatively different this year, not rooted in a topic, but somewhere internal and hard to fathom. The closest analogy I can find is the “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” which Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer described as “”the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay —the very existence of George W. Bush.”

There seems some wisdom in that analogy. As for its validity, Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution thinks that Goldman’s posture, at least, is understandable. Goldman has a long history of Democratic leanings, Hess told me, resulting in “plenty of hurt feelings” when Obama took what it perceived as unnecessary swipes at the financial sector. “All Wall Street has a Washington wish list,” he said. “But I always sensed that Goldman alone also wanted a little affection from a Democratic president, which has not been forthcoming from the president who now wishes support.”  Hmmm. Is it too late to say, “Sorry”?