Legendary investor to Obama: Is all this class warfare rhetoric really necessary?

Whew. I haven’t read a letter this profoundly accurate since I read Ali Akbar’s Tea Party invitation to Morgan Freeman.

In New York City, Leon Cooperman is a legend, the quintessential self-made man. His parents were Polish immigrants, his father a humble, hard-working plumber. Cooperman became the first in his family to attend college — and, when he started work at Goldman Sachs, fresh out of business school at Columbia University, he had no money in the bank. He worked his way up to eventually run Goldman before he founded his own private investment firm, Omega Advisors. Today, he’s worth $1.8 billion — and has the philanthropic chops to prove it. He’s given away more than he’s ever spent on himself — and he has committed to the Warren Buffett Giving Pledge, which means he has promised to give the majority of his wealth to philanthropy.

Over the years, Cooperman has been inspired by the wise words of men who have counseled charitable giving, from the Talmudic injunction “A man’s net worth is measured not by what he earns but rather what he gives away” to Andrew Carnegie’s oft-quoted reminder “He who dies rich, dies disgraced.” But the investor has been less than inspired by the president’s repeated condemnatory remarks about capitalism; by his repeated appeals to envy, one of the basest of human instincts; and by the thoughtless lashings he’s administered to the American people out of his own political desperation (“lazy,” “soft” and “bitter” we are!). What’s more: Cooperman has taken the time to compose an open letter to the president to tell him just how disappointed he is.

In fervid, forceful, expressive prose, Cooperman excoriates the president for his lack of leadership. Here, a few excerpts, but the letter is absolutely, 100 percent worth a complete read:

Dear Mr. President,

It is with a great sense of disappointment that I write this. Like many others, I hoped that your election would bring a salutary change of direction to the country, despite what more than a few feared was an overly aggressive social agenda. And I cannot credibly blame you for the economic mess that you inherited, even if the policy response on your watch has been profligate and largely ineffectual. (You did not, after all, invent TARP.) I understand that when surrounded by cries of “the end of the world as we know it is nigh”, even the strongest of minds may have a tendency to shoot first and aim later in a well-intended effort to stave off the predicted apocalypse.

But what I can justifiably hold you accountable for is you and your minions’ role in setting the tenor of the rancorous debate now roiling us that smacks of what so many have characterized as “class warfare”. Whether this reflects your principled belief that the eternal divide between the haves and have-nots is at the root of all the evils that afflict our society or just a cynical, populist appeal to his base by a president struggling in the polls is of little importance. What does matter is that the divisive, polarizing tone of your rhetoric is cleaving a widening gulf, at this point as much visceral as philosophical, between the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them. It is a gulf that is at once counterproductive and freighted with dangerous historical precedents. And it is an approach to governing that owes more to desperate demagoguery than your Administration should feel comfortable with. …

But what I do find objectionable is the highly politicized idiom in which this debate is being conducted. Now, I am not naive. I understand that in today’s America, this is how the business of governing typically gets done – a situation that, given the gravity of our problems, is as deplorable as it is seemingly ineluctable. But as President first and foremost and leader of your party second, you should endeavor to rise above the partisan fray and raise the level of discourse to one that is both more civil and more conciliatory, that seeks collaboration over confrontation. That is what “leading by example” means to most people.

Capitalism is not the source of our problems, as an economy or as a society, and capitalists are not the scourge that they are too often made out to be. As a group, we employ many millions of taxpaying people, pay their salaries, provide them with healthcare coverage, start new companies, found new industries, create new products, fill store shelves at Christmas, and keep the wheels of commerce and progress (and indeed of government, by generating the income whose taxation funds it) moving. To frame the debate as one of rich-and-entitled versus poor-and-dispossessed is to both miss the point and further inflame an already incendiary environment. It is also a naked, political pander to some of the basest human emotions – a strategy, as history teaches, that never ends well for anyone but totalitarians and anarchists.

With due respect, Mr. President, it’s time for you to throttle-down the partisan rhetoric and appeal to people’s better instincts, not their worst. …


Leon G. Cooperman

I’m not even the president and I feel chastised by the letter. As many a kid has been wont to proclaim, “I can handle it when my dad is angry with me, but when he’s disappointed … That’s the worst.” The searing disappointment that licks through this letter stings as anger never could.

Cooperman reminds me: It’s pretty easy to knock civility, especially as calls for it always seem to come at inopportune times or as a way of silencing the opposition — but it really doesn’t hurt anything to proceed from the assumption that the majority of folks want what’s best for the country and to appeal to that desire in them, rather than to accuse them of intentionally wanting what’s worst.