Obama and “Populism”

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.