Political Animal


May 02, 2012 4:49 PM Obama and “Populism”

By Ed Kilgore

I’ve mentioned the ongoing TNR symposium on “Obama and Populism” a couple of times in the lunchtime and day’s end notes, and since my submission was published today, figured I’d give you a taste of the discussion.

Asked to discuss whether Obama should wage a self-consciously “populist” general election campaign, Geoffrey Kabaservice kicked off the colloquoy with a piece arguing that the populist style is alien to Obama’s personality and background:

Obama makes a far likelier target than tribune of populism. Obama is nobody’s idea of “just folks.” He’s too cosmopolitan, multiracial, professorial, self-controlled, and physically fit to present himself as an incarnation of the American common man. His otherness has always inclined him toward an E Pluribus Unum approach rather than Us Against Them. He’s too sophisticated to pretend that politics is a straightforward clash of good and evil, that vile elites conspire to enslave the little people, or that the experience of balancing the family checkbook and raising children is adequate preparation for governing the United States. Rage-choked sobs, low quavering moans, righteous bellows, whoops, hollers, hallelujahs—none of these are in his repertoire. He doesn’t do anger. The political strain Obama most obviously seeks to channel is not populism but some mix of John F. Kennedy’s cool, Dwight Eisenhower’s moderation, and Abraham Lincoln’s gravitas. The ability to do a convincing imitation of Huey Long just isn’t in him. Populist pandering would undermine the only-adult-in-the-room persona he has worked so hard to establish.

While acknowledging that there’s plenty of raw material out there for a “populist” campaign, Kabaservice believes Obama just can’t credibly pull it off—but nor, fortunately, can Mitt Romney.

In another submission published today, Ruy Teixeira offers a very different take focusing on specific general election messages. Unlike Kabaservice, he believes a populist message is possible and indeed unavoidable: “[C]urrent polling suggests that to not do so would be political malpractice.” But he argues for what he calls an “aspirational populism” that broadens the blunt class-based “fairness” argument into a call for restoring opportunities for individual upward mobility:

[T]his aspect of his populism has received less play than his general emphasis on fairness. That needs to change. He needs to double down on the argument that inequality is a drag on mobility and growth and articulate a strong aspirational program to go along with it. President Obama wants you to go to college! Or get the training you need! Or start a business! Or do whatever fits your definition of getting ahead! And here’s how we’re going to help you do it. Oh, and did I mention that my opponent’s program provides you with nothing, since it consists entirely of giving more money to those who already have a lot?

The original version of my own piece began by noting that arguments over “populism” often founder over variable understandings of the term, since we’re not talking about Obama crusading for public ownership of grain elevators or free coinage of silver at a 30-1 ratio. Since the editors left that observation on the cutting-room floor, the piece begins with an effort to narrow the question by distinguishing between policy and rhetoric. Obama has already embraced a number of policy initiatives that reinforce a “populist” message, most notably a tax surcharge on millionaires. And like it or not, he has already rejected many other initiatives that “populists” tend to promote. He’s not about to suddenly denounce TARP or his own implementation of it, label his own economic advisors as corporate stooges, propose the abolition of private health insurance, or attack “free trade.”

But on the rhetorical front, there’s plenty for Obama to work with, and precisely because his success depends on drawing maximum attention to the plutocratic philosophy of his opponent, he needs to take full advantage of his opportunities:

[Obama] needs to run on Mitt Romney’s flaws, and not only on his own accomplishments. And because of Romney’s own background and economic agenda, a populist message is the best way to do that. Romney is running almost entirely on his reputation as a corporate wizard; his economic policy platform is about liberating “job creators” from taxes and oversight; and he has embraced the Ryan Budget, a domestic policy blueprint that aims at a government-engineered redistribution of resources from the bottom to the top of the income ladder. If Obama does not draw attention to the obvious class nature of Romney’s background, agenda, allies, and beneficiaries, then he is in danger of letting Romney get away with the suggestion that he’s simply offering an alternative path to full economic recovery—not a path for the wealthy to acquire more wealth.

As for the “style” issue, I pointed to Robert Kennedy as a good model for a politician adept at combining sharp populist attacks with a universalistic appeal to broad common purposes.

You should check out the whole symposium, which will run the rest of the week. I have no illusions Team Obama is reading this stuff or has not already pretty much made its plans, but it never hurts to offer advice.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Lev @ LibraryGrape.com on May 02, 2012 5:34 PM:

    That first quote strikes me as partly right, though also partly off-base. Quite a few effective populists have been decidedly upper-crust. The Roosevelts, Bobby Kennedy, and even Woodrow Wilson to an extent, were none of them low-born. There's nothing about being wealthy that necessarily inhibits having a bond with the people. Of course, doing so requires you to care about them as relative equals to yourself, worthy of leading, which I think Obama basically does and Romney basically doesn't.

    Obama's relationship to populism is complicated. Quite certainly he's adopted a pitch and some policies that have populist appeal. And, ultimately, any politician who has a connection with the people (and not all do) has got to have some quantity of populism going for them. It's definitely not Obama's default approach, which is very much a "wise men sitting behind a table, trusting each other and working it out" sort of deal. And I definitely think he's resisted it at a lot of points in his presidency where that's what he needed to do. But it would appear there's no other way, and I think he's been doing reasonably well at playing the populist.

  • smartalek on May 02, 2012 5:38 PM:

    Haven't read any of the TNR articles yet, but two brief observations:
    Obama's been a corporatist from day 1.
    Does anyone really think he has the inclination, much less the ability, to reverse himself and his entire administration's ideology, narratives, or policies?
    And even if he were to attempt to do so, would our corporate-propagandist mass media let him get away with it?
    The same media that has been actively colluding w/ the Rmoney campaign's manifold deceptions would crucify Obama for the slightest move in such directions.
    And, please tell me I'm not the only one repulsed when Obama drops his "g"s when speaking before any audience he thinks might contain anyone without a graduate or professional degree?
    GWB could get away with sounding pig-ignorant and stupid because he WAS both.
    To me, at least, Obama just sounds insulting and patently phony when he does so.

  • Jose Hipants on May 02, 2012 5:40 PM:

    If he needs the weeping, shouting, sweating style of populist oratory, send Joe Biden.

  • Peter C on May 02, 2012 5:58 PM:

    Populism isn't about dropping your 'g's, drinking beer or being overweight, it is about governing in the best interests of the vast majority of the people. When we treat it superficially, we get politicians like Bush or Christie who benefit the rich and screw the rest of us. Populism is not an unsophisticated philosophy, just an empathetic and caring one.

  • c u n d gulag on May 02, 2012 5:58 PM:

    Obama was a centrist in 2008, he's a centrist now.

    In 2008, some people heard populism.

    Now, 4 years later, if he tries too hard, they'll tune him out.

    He can stay on the fringes of the "Occupy" movement's messages.
    But he shouldn't try to enter the drum circles.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 02, 2012 6:12 PM:

    Populism isn't, actually, IMHO an "empathetic and caring" philosophy. It involves making claims about economic power for the common person. It's about class issues. The "empathetic and caring" philosophy is liberalism.

    There are populists who aren't liberal (think Teamster), and liberals who aren't populist (think NPR listeners). "Populists" strictly speaking don't particularly care about gender, race, sexuality, or the environment. Some of the worst tensions within the Democratic party are between liberals and populists.

    Obama doesn't particularly do populist style, but he's pretty good at something like liberal-Christian-communitarian style. Think of his riff on "I am my brother's keeper."

    His least populist side has been the treatment of banking interests. His least liberal side has been the treatment of undocumented immigrants.

  • Doug on May 02, 2012 9:22 PM:

    smartalek, haven't you noticed that when Mr. Obama is being "Presidential", he tends to be MORE formal than when he's campaigning? LBJ was so formal when "appearing" as President it was painful to watch. Nixon was, well, Nixon. I don't recall EVER seeing much difference in any of his speeches, political OR Presidential. Otherwise, and as best as I can recall, all the remaining former occupants of the White House between then and now were the same: one speaking mode for "Presidenting" and another for "campaigning".
    I presume when Mr. Obama is out campaigning he's trying to engage those listeners, to get them to understand not only what HE believes, but WHY those beliefs are relevant to his audience. He is, again I'm presuming, being "Barack Obama, Community Organizer", trying to communicate with, and gain the support of, those he's speaking to. Which is certainly a different effort than informing the nation about some important occurance/legislation and allows for the speaker to be more him/herself.
    Many of Mr. Obama's goals can be classified as "populist", at least in the generic sense of the word. If he so chooses, Mr. Obama can run a "populist" campaign without any fear of being called a fake.
    As to your charge of "corporatism" on Mr. Obama's part, I can only ask if that's the word of the day/month/year? Because it certainly doesn't apply to the legislation passed in 2009 and 2010. You know, the legislation that the corporations are so desperate to change, weaken or repeal? The very corporations, according to you, that Mr. Obama has shown such fealty to? To quote a famous ratiocinator: "Pfooey!"
    Personally, I can find no fault with Mr. Obama's goals, as he's laid them out. Nor do I find any MAJOR faults in his accomplishments. What with 535 elected officials on Capitol Hill and another one down the street, I don't doubt there's enough blame, politically-speaking, for EVERYONE to share in whatever missteps may have occurred. Plus, it really doesn't get anything accomplished.
    And yes, you ARE the only one repulsed by Mr. Obama's "g" droppin'...

  • BaritoneWoman on May 03, 2012 6:56 AM:

    Perhaps the best populist stance Obama (or any other politician) can take is in the words of the character Gracchus in the movie "Gladiator":
    - "I don't pretend to be a man of the people. But I do try to be a man for the people"

  • Kathryn on May 03, 2012 9:21 AM:

    There is no president in my memory, which goes back to Eisenhower, who has been had more exacting, all incompassimg criticism expressed toward him. There is no president in my memory who is more genuine than Barack Obama, more inclined to openness, too. open at times, which can come back and bite him. The microscopic critiquing is, at its worse, racism and at it's most benign an insecurity with trusting him.

    IMO, the best line in the essays on populism, is "did I mention, my opponents program provides you with NOTHING, since it consists entirely in giving more money to those who already have a lot of it?"

  • gifgrrl on May 03, 2012 9:45 AM:

    "...too cosmopolitan, multiracial, professorial, self-controlled, and physically fit to present himself as an incarnation of the American common man."

    Too true! The common American man or woman does not have abs of steel. And I count myself amongst those who do not. I'm not that great at self-control, either. But I can do multiracial and professorial is good with me also. But darn it, them abs are gonna make it so's I got to vote for Mittens.

    (just kidding, really!)