Commentary — February 3, 2012, 1:58 pm

Obama’s Big Shtick

Barry C. Lynn is the author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. He directs the Markets, Enterprise, and Resiliency Initiative at the New America Foundation. His feature “Killing the Competition: How the New Monopolies Are Destroying Open Markets,” appears in the February 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and is excerpted here on Harpers.org. A previous article, “Breaking the Chain: The antitrust case against Wal-Mart” (July 2006), is available for free here.

In December, President Obama did something very rare among today’s politicians—he acknowledged that America’s history did not begin with the New Deal. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the president led his audience all the way back to the grand campaign of 1912, when debate centered on who would rule our government, the plutocrats or the people.

Obama chose Osawatomie because it was there that Theodore Roosevelt took his first step toward abandoning the Republican Party to run as a Progressive, supposedly to battle the powers that had captured the G.O.P. and Washington. Obama, eager to portray himself as a fighter for today’s middle class, carefully draped Roosevelt’s mantle over his own shoulders. Roosevelt, he said, had “busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete.” Then, striking his own brave stance against Goliath, Obama boomed, “Today, they still must.”

The problem with Obama’s story is that Roosevelt’s reputation as a trustbuster is largely based on myth. As one genuinely progressive Republican leader of that era, Senator Robert La Follette (Wis.), wrote in 1913, Roosevelt’s anti-monopoly rhetoric “went just far enough to give color to the claim that he was upholding the law.” But when it came time to act, Roosevelt ran in the opposite direction, and for all intents “opened the floodgates for trust organization” in America. “Upon Theodore Roosevelt more than any other man,” La Follette wrote, “must rest the responsibility for the gravest problem which ever menaced the industrial freedom of the American people.”

Which brings us to a question: Is President Obama bad at history, or is he consciously following Roosevelt’s MO of talking tough, then carrying the rich man’s bags? Unlike in 2008, when for a few glorious months candidate Obama seemed truly to want to serve as the people’s man in Washington, we now have the record of three years in office. So far, it ain’t the stuff of glory.

Obama’s government can boast of blocking AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile, but that deal was easy to queer, since companies at least as powerful as AT&T opposed the move. Meanwhile, his administration has approved mergers of banks, pharmaceutical companies, and airlines, as well as the marriages of Comcast and NBC, and of Live Nation and Ticketmaster. Perhaps most damning is the administration’s servile retreat from its promise to stand up for America’s farmers, such as the poultry growers I write about in “Killing the Competition.” Here we have American citizens in a condition of near complete economic enslavement to arbitrary power. Here also we have a realm where the administration had given the American people reason to believe.

In 2010, the Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice jointly organized five public hearings on monopoly in agriculture. The hearings took place in Iowa, Alabama, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Washington. Among those in attendance were Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The highlights included a dramatic offer made by the head of Justice’s antitrust division, Christine Varney, to protect Alabama poultry farmer Garry Staples from retaliation, if only he’d speak on the record. For a brief moment, it seemed as though sober public servants were working for the American citizen.

The American citizenry can now weigh the harvest of that hope: a single insignificant change in the rules governing poultry tournamentsWherein buyers pay more per piece to those who produce the most, pitting poultry farmers against each other while maximizing the return to capital.—a practice that shouldn’t have existed among a free people in the first place. Nothing more is on the way. Last July, Christine Varney traded the public’s trust for a hefty payday at the New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which is renowned for defending monopolists. And two weeks ago, the last dedicated agricultural reformer in the administration, Dudley Butler, jumped from the hay cart.

In Osawatomie, President Obama said that the American people today face the same “choice” they did a century ago. Indeed. But when we are finally ready to fight that fight, we’d do better to turn for guidance to the man who beat Theodore Roosevelt in 1912: Woodrow Wilson. “If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going to own it,” Wilson said. “What we have to determine now is whether we are big enough, whether we are men enough, whether we are free enough, to take possession again of the government which is our own.”

I, for one, have complete faith that the American people will prevail. But we will do so only when we use our voices and votes to empower leaders with the guts to wield big sticks along with the shtick.

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More from Barry C. Lynn:

From the February 2012 issue

Killing the Competition

How the new monopolies are destroying open markets

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