Obama's Reluctant Populism Irks Left
Sometimes in the fight for health reform or tighter rules on Wall Street, President Barack Obama unleashes his podium-pounding, “yes we can” side.
And sometimes, critics say, Obama’s just a part-time populist.
The differences in tone can be jarring – and infuriating to his liberal
supporters. Obama in December fired shots at “fat cat bankers,” then
told bankers at the White House the next day he didn’t mean to vilify anyone or dictate their pay.
He denounced the “twisted logic” of big Wall Street bonuses, then suggested recently he doesn’t begrudge the mega-buck payouts.
Ten days ago, Obama confronted health insurance CEOs during a White
House meeting with a letter from a woman whose premiums went up 40
It had the makings of a signature moment in the health care fight – the
president standing up for average Americans — yet just before Obama
arrived, reporters were escorted out of the room. So there was no
footage of the exchange and no record of the insurance executives’
The White House simply released a photograph of the president reading the letter, and press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, “I'll let the insurance executives speak for themselves.”
It’s not the first time Obama’s supporters have wanted to see more heat
and less cool, and the economic crisis and the anti-establishment mood
of the country have left Obama trying to channel and harness public
anxiety and anger. But his engagement at times has been tepid, and he
often comes off as halting – at one moment a fiery populist and at
another a pragmatic consensus-seeker.
“Populism isn’t something that you pick and choose to emphasize when
it’s helpful to moving your legislative agenda. It’s something that you
try to live every day in the way that you talk about issues and the way
that you relate to people,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who is
chairman of the Populist Caucus.
“I think the president has a long way to go. He keeps sending mixed
messages where he’ll do something that appears to be populist, like
condemning the actions of Wall Street, and then he’ll be sitting down
with corporate executives and planning strategy.”
Obama the politician matched the moment back in November 2008, when
voters weary of George W. Bush flocked to his promise of change.
Now the times have changed, and they’re looking to Obama to feel as
angry as they are about the failing economy, the sense that Wall Street
is out of whack and that Washington seems incapable of doing anything
about it. That mood, plus a strong disdain of Obama, has fueled the
conservative Tea Party movement, but it’s not strictly partisan. A lot
of voters are mad, and many want a sense the president is mad too.
That kind of populism demands a stark view of the world, a clear-cut
villain, good guys vs. bad guys, or big guys vs. little guys. Obama
comes across as far more cerebral, a figure who embraces nuance, who is
hesitant to single out a boogeyman. But populism and nuance don’t mix –
and for Obama, that seems to muffle his message, when a satisfying
shotgun blast might do.
a lot of ways his instincts about how to solve the problems may have
been right, but they weren’t stylistically what people wanted, which
was somebody to go beat the hell out of the banks and insurance
companies,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “So I think him
emerging with a fire right now against the insurance companies is much
more in synch with where the people are than the consensus-builder he
tried to be the first year or so.”
Obama, too, is a card-carrying member of the elite meritocracy
(Harvard, a lawyer, a former senator), so it’s not like banking CEOs
are the enemy to him. In fact, the comment where he said he doesn’t
“begrudge” big bonuses came in response to a question about JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, a longtime friend and Democratic donor.
For the White House, it’s a balancing act, and Obama has tried to
channel growing voter anger in a way that compliments his natural
style, as a politician who takes the long view and would rather talk to
the so-called enemy than shout at him, Gibbs said in an interview.
“The president has always thought of himself, when he was in the State
Senate and the U.S. Senate, as somebody who could take on big issues by
bringing different viewpoints together to make progress. And sometimes
if you’re on either extreme of this, I think you tend to be less
involved in the solutions, because you’re simply out there just driving
your own point,” Gibbs said.
“The times require, and I think quite frankly people want, more than
somebody who will sympathize with their frustration,” he added.
“Somebody who can sympathize with your anger by visibly showing their
anger will only get you so far.”
On the meeting with insurers, Gibbs said opening up the moment was
unnecessary and would have run counter to Obama’s preferred approach,
which is to foster “honest discussions” with stakeholders without them
worrying “that each and every meeting is about a press event.”
“I think we made our point,” Gibbs said.
The problem for Obama is his posture can leave the impression that he’s out of touch.
Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant and senior fellow at the Peter S.
Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, describes
Obama as cerebral with “a little demagogue in him from time to time.”
Traditional populists, Rollins notes, “don’t care what they rail
against and have not always been handicapped by a cerebral approach.”
Still there are flashes of a tougher stance. On the road in
Philadelphia Monday, he took on insurance companies with a harsher tone
than he has struck during the entire year-long health care debate. He
criticized them some two dozen times and said they’re all about “making
By the end of the speech the president was hunched over the microphone
and jabbing his finger in the air, as he encouraged the cheering crowd
to “stand with me and fight with me!”
the most fiery I've seen him since the early campaign,” said Sen. Arlen
Specter (D-Pa.), who was traveling with the president.
But two days later in St. Louis, Obama’s delivered at mild-tempered
speech, focusing on fraud and waste to a more muted crowd. The evening
itself, which also included two fundraising events, offered a snapshot
of Obama’s ups and downs.
“I think he got, by all accounts, a little bit more fired up later in
the night,” Gibbs said, acknowledging that Obama’s tone had shifted
from Monday to Wednesday.
The reason for Obama’s populist fits and starts, surmised Ross Perot
campaign manager Clay Mulford, is because he’s working with bankers and
insurance companies as he knits together his proposals – making it
harder to demonize them.
“I think you see the inconsistency because they’re in on the game,” Mulford said.
Obama’s passionate critique of the process of politics in Washington –
something he’s hit hard in the past week – is a more winnable argument,
Mulford said, than his railing against big business or big government.
Obama still has managed to convey empathy. A Pew poll in January found
that 64 percent of respondents think Obama is “someone who cares about
people like me” – a number that did not decline much in the latter part
of 2009, said Michael Dimock, associate director for polling at Pew
“I think back to the campaign and you even saw it then, he could give
these really fired-up speeches and get the crowds stomping their feet,
and then he’d go into the debate and he was just Mr. Cool again,” said
After a rough first year, the White House has tried to tune in more
closely. Obama now does monthly White House to Main Street stops to
discuss the economy. He is pushing a jobs bill intended to benefit the
middle class and small businesses.
But as in the campaign, his aides believe he should not adjust to match the country’s mood every time it changes.
“If you do that you’re going to end up becoming three or four different
things over the course of three or four different years because of
whether or not the strain holds the whole time,” Gibbs said. “I think
if you’re always in fifth gear and you’re always running hot, you can’t
really nuance that. Something can’t really get you exercised because
you’re always really exercised.”
That stance continues not to sit well with liberals.
“It’s not something you turn on or turn off depending on the day to try
to make a point,” Braley said. “That’s the difference that I’m waiting
to see in how the president approaches these critical issues.”