Why'd It Take Obama So Long to Go Populist?

by Noam Scheiber | January 25, 2012

Ever since last fall, when Obama began honing the more confrontational style he displayed in the State of the Union speech, his advisers have insisted that populism has always been part of the president's political persona, not something he only groped for after two-and-a-half years of Republican intransigence. As David Axelrod told Politico, “The viability of the middle class, and the opportunity to get ahead, has been a central cause of Obama’s life.” 

It’s not that statements like this are untrue. It’s that they’re incomplete. Yes, Obama has long been concerned about fairness and equity, and has a record of favoring policies that promote these goals. But populism is more than a set of policies and concerns. It also refers to a harder-edged rhetorical style and a tougher approach to adversaries, and those elements of Obama’s persona are clearly new. (Though let's not kid ourselves--Obama still isn't exactly a fire-breather.) 

The more interesting question, which I’m sure we’ll be discussing on and off between now and the election (and maybe for decades to come, depending on how that goes), is why it took so long for the president to make this change despite all the evidence that earnest engagement with Republicans was futile. Some, like Andrew Sullivan and my former colleague Jon Chait, have argued that it was part of the master plan all along: Before breaking out the shiv, which he always intended to do, Obama wanted to persuade any fair-minded observer that he’d made every effort to work with Republicans. That way, the public would blame the other guys and not him for the lack of cooperation. 

I think there’s something to this explanation, but I’ve always considered it a little pat. The lengths Obama went to in this regard struck me as more pathological than tactical at times. The view I tease out in my forthcoming book on Obama and the economy (which you can pre-order here) is that Obama’s bipartisanship has roots in his organizing days in Chicago, where he saw the ugly side of political tribalism up close and decided he wanted no part of it.  

But there’s still another explanation, which has to do with racial stereotypes and double-standards. Simply put, a little-known African-American politician who dabbles in edgy populism risks alienating certain white voters, who will view his populism through the lens of race. However the candidate actually intends it, these voters will treat his rhetoric as evidence that he plans to take from white people and give to black people, and, needless to say, they’ll be nudged along in this assumption by the right-wing media. (Fox et al was pretty good at fanning these fears even when Obama’s rhetoric was about as far from populist as you can get). 

Three years into his term, by contrast, most Americans have a fairly detailed portrait of the president. He’s no longer a black man they don’t know, but a person they have a relatively intimate relationship with, at least as public figures go. Many, if not most, probably don’t even think of the president in racial terms anymore. 

Which is to say, Obama may have finally embraced populism because he finally can embrace populism, whereas it simply wasn’t politically possible before. 

Update: It was criminally negligent of me not to point out that The Atlantic's Chris Orr, my former neighbor here at TNR, was the first to make this argument back in 2010 ... in response to a piece I'd written about Democrats and populism.

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