Recession presidents should avoid lobster, caviar

$17,600-a-plate fundraiser at a billionaire's mansion

May 30, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Back when Bill Clinton was running for president for the first time, my Chicago cousin announced that he was too cynical to vote because Democrats and Republicans had become so much alike he had lost all sense of distinctions. "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," he used to say.

Both parties are completely compromised by big business and status quo politics, he said. There was a permanent political class in America — a big tent that covers Republicans and Democrats, their affluent friends, special-interest lobbyists and influential insiders.

"Tweedledum, Tweedledee."

That's a pretty cynical view of things, and it in part explains why so many voters have declared themselves independents.

My Chicago cousin perked up a bit in 2008 when a Democrat he admired, also from the Windy City, ran for the presidency with, "Change we can believe in" as his theme. Barack Obama set records for raising campaign funds, but he admirably refused to take money from lobbyists and political action committees.

Barack Obama is a recession president, and a recession president should not be caught anywhere near a $17,600-a-plate fundraiser, even if perpetual fundraising is a fact of life, even if midterm elections are on the horizon.

Much of a presidency is defined by symbolism, and Barack Obama's appearance at a California campaign event for Sen. Barbara Boxer, a millionaire, in a billionaire's mansion, provided a glowing symbol of how out of touch the political class is with the rest of the country.

The event took place at the San Francisco mansion of Ann and Gordon Getty. Dinner was served in the mansion's marble courtyard.

According to Catherine Bigelow, who covers the social scene for the San Francisco Chronicle, the menu included, for hors d'oeuvres, quail egg with caviar and salmon ceviche with jicama and avocado on a tortilla chip. The first course was a spring onion-asparagus tartlet with Meyer lemon vinaigrette-dressed frisee salad, and, Ms. Bigelow reported, "the main course of braised Kobe beef short ribs with potato puree and a salsa verde-topped spring vegetable ragout … followed by buckwheat crepes with roasted cherries and almond ice cream."

In 1981, in the midst of a recession, Ronald Reagan showed up for an event in Baltimore and, with the unemployment rate about where it is today, he dined on a fabulous gourmet meal that included lobster a la ravigote. This was at a time when the Reagan administration wanted to list ketchup as a vegetable to save money on the federal school lunch program. One of the government's gifts to the unemployed was surplus American processed "cheese," in long blocks, and a Reagan administration official showed up in a mink coat to hand out the faux-fromage at a community center in Baltimore County.

All very symbolic of the disconnect between the Reagan White House and the real pain of real people, trying to deal, for one thing, with the loss of manufacturing jobs that paid decent wages.

President Reagan once stood at a news conference and expressed disbelief that more Americans could not find work when the newspaper classifieds were full of opportunities. He didn't have a clue that the jobs to which he referred required advanced degrees while the traditional blue-collar jobs, once the foundation of American middle-class life, were vanishing.

So, I stood on the sidewalk in downtown Baltimore with some unhappy people — the unemployed, the homeless — while President Reagan went inside to dine on lobster a la ravigote.

Here we are, 30 years later, and Barack Obama, a Democrat and supposedly the ideological opposite of Ronald Reagan, appears at a $17,600-a-plate fundraiser in a billionaire's mansion in San Francisco.

In better times, perhaps it would not be so noticeable. But unemployment appears to be stuck at 9.7 percent, wages and salaries rose just 0.4 percent in the first quarter of the year — after a whopping 0.5 percent rise in the last three months of 2010. Only 21 percent of Americans think the economy is in good condition, according to an Associated Press poll.

Maybe this stuff doesn't bother anyone anymore. Maybe, like my Chicago cousin, we're all cynical about the millions that go into campaigns and assume that even self-described agents of change, like Mr. Obama, have to play this game at top speed or no speed.

But there are times — such as those we live in, the Great Recession — when the president of the United States ought to stay out of rooms where they're serving caviar.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. His e-mail is

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