Obama on Populism and Elitism

It’s not often that you see the words “Obama” and “rant” in the same headline. And yet that is exactly what you’ll find in the CBS News report on the President’s remarks at a news conference following the Three Amigos Summit in Ottawa, Canada:  Obama goes on “rant” about Donald Trump’s populism. The unusual pairing of those words is qualified a bit by the quotation marks around “rant.” Obama didn’t shake his fists or pound the podium or even raise his voice. So this is what qualifies as a rant from this oh-so-cool president. But Obama himself noted at the end that he’s about ready to leave office and suggested that perhaps he’s letting loose a bit with his thoughts and feelings. This could get interesting.

You can watch the whole “rant” here:

As the headline above suggests, these remarks were inspired by the tendency lately to refer to Donald Trump as a populist. Obama doesn’t think the term fits.

“I’m not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist,” Mr. Obama said, referring to Trump…

Without identifying him by name, Mr. Obama dismissed Trump as someone “who has never shown any regard for workers, who has never fought on behalf of any social justice issues” and who has worked against providing economic opportunities.

“They don’t suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes,” he said. “That’s not the measure of populism; that’s nativism or xenophobia…or it’s just cynicism.”

“Somebody who labels us versus them or engages in rhetoric about how we’re going to look after ourselves and take it to the other guy..that’s not the definition of populism,” he added.

President Obama also noted that Sen. Bernie Sanders could genuinely be called a populist because he has been working on behalf of the people his entire career. The President went on to say that, while he and Sanders agree on goals, they have different ideas about how to get there.

In discussing his own brand of populism, Obama noted that he chose to bail out the auto industry when doing so was only supported by about 10% of the public. “Perhaps that makes me an elitist,” he said. What he didn’t have to say is that, given the opportunity, he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

What’s interesting to me is that words like “populist” and “elitist” seem to be on President Obama’s mind right now as he watches events unfold in everything from the 2016 presidential race to the Brexit vote. In that way, he’s a lot like the rest of us. Just this week I’ve been writing about them too (populism, elitism). Perhaps that’s because those words are being twisted beyond recognition in an attempt to exploit voters’ anxieties and fears. President Obama wanted us all to think about the commitments someone makes over their entire careers before we start throwing them out there.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.