Death by Populism, Rebirth by Populism

The postmortems are already being written.  The Democrats are going to take a drubbing in the upcoming midterm elections, the only question is how big.  It is an inevitability that was not inevitable, according to John Judis.

Writing in The New Republic, Judis argues that Obama has ceded the populist mantle to conservatives, who have bludgeoned the administration for defending the monied interests whose avarice helped spin penury from prosperity.  It is a curious misstep for an administration that came into office with widespread support, including from independents and even some Republicans.  What a difference a recession makes.

The indictment is severe, and unexpected.  “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” candidate Obama intoned during the presidential campaign, speaking for the economically disenfranchised, long-neglected by corporate-friendly Washington.  Their cause was his.  Now Obama is apt to be seen as in cahoots with the top hat and cigar crowd—a transformation that occurred in the first six months of his coming to power.  This critical period, Judis claims, was “primed for a populist backlash,” and Obama let it slip from his grasp, allowing “the right wing to define the terms.”

There were some efforts to ride the populist wave, not succumb to it.  Obama invoked the phrase “New Foundation” to describe his agenda to rebuild the country’s economic base, echoing the New Deal and Great Society sloganeering.  The phraseology fell flat: historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said it sounded “like a woman’s girdle.”  It was soon dropped.  But Obama’s problem was not just rhetorical though, as the Washington Post’s EJ Dionne points out, “The president’s efforts to lay down a consistent rationale, argument and philosophy have been sporadic.”

Judis blames Obama’s scattered policies.  The president scolded Wall Street one week, then lauded it the next; he championed homeowners burdened by untenable mortgages, then failed to champion legislation allowing judges to renegotiate the loans.  Obama’s economic appointments fueled the unrest.   Many came from high finance.  Those that did not were oftentimes associated with the same laissez-faire policies integral to the financial meltdown.  “Most Americans were reading about the massive compensations and bailouts,” Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan remarked, “and the administration largely hired people from the culture of Wall Street.”

Into the breach stepped the Tea Party.

Populism, Judis reminds, has no ideological home.  It can come in conservative or liberal guises.  The onslaught of right-wing populism began with accusations of Obama’s snug relationship with corporate America and other “moochers” demanding bailouts unavailable to “those who work hard and play by the rules,” as Bill Clinton once memorably characterized the middle class.  The attacks tapped into and reinforced perceptions.  A CNN poll taken in January found that 60 percent of Americans faulted Obama for paying more attention to the problems confronting banks and other financial institutions than those faced by working Americans.  At the same time, major business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce accused Obama of being hostile to their membership.  Thus, the president stood accused of being, at once, a corporate shill and a business-hating socialist.

The president compounded his troubles by confronting them timorously.  Christina Romer, the head of the Council of Economic Advisors, counseled her boss to propose a massive $1.2 billion jolt to stimulate the tanking economy.  The administration ultimately asked for under $800 million—enough to stem the hemorrhage but not enough to do more.  It has proven to be a Pyrrhic victory whose fruits will be fully borne on Election Day when the unemployment rate will likely hover near 10 percent.  Could Obama have gotten more from Congress?  Judis believes so with better messaging focusing on the gravity of the economic crisis.

For Judis, the crux of the problem is Obama’s strange aversion to confrontation: “He is, perhaps, ill-suited in these respects for an era of bruising political warfare.”  The accusation goes to the heart of the Obama “brand” purporting to be above politics.  But post-partisanship, however appealing as an electoral selling point, is a chimera when it comes to the rough and tumble of governing.  Worse, casting himself as an outsider has allowed Obama to be more easily caricatured as a ghastly “other”—Islamist, socialist, collectivist, etc.—by his demagogic opponents.

Getting his groove back, Judis says, will require that Obama channel the great liberal populists like FDR, who unabashedly defended government as a bulwark against rapacious economic elites.  “Against economic tyranny,” Roosevelt thundered in 1936, “the American citizen could only appeal to the organized power of government.”  Can Obama sing off the same populist song sheet?  It will require him to change, but it’s the sort of change we can believe in.

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