Editors’ note: No Democratic president has won in recent decades on a platform of economic populism. But with the rhetoric of the 99 percent still in the air, and a proposal for a ‘Fair Share Tax’ at the center of his current platform, it seems President Obama might be attempting to do just that. We’ve asked a number of TNR writers to discuss whether it makes sense for Obama to run as a populist. Can a Democrat win on a populist message? Should Obama try? Click here to read the collected contributions.
Let me confess that I've long found the term “populism” in connection with Barack Obama rather strained and unsatisfying. Yes, Obama has, at various points in the past few years, spoken out strongly against the ills of entrenched moneyed interests. But he is also a man who, we now know, spent his formative years waxing philosophical about Pound and Yeats to equally literate girlfriends in New York City. This is a man more comfortable with a fountain pen than a pitchfork. His best moments on the stump, it always seemed to me, were those when he appealed to his audience's intelligence rather than its base instincts—say, when he explained to them in 2008 why Hillary Clinton and John McCain's call for a gas-tax moratorium was a cheap gimmick. Meanwhile, the fact is that the circumstances of the present political moment make it all but impossible for a Democrat not to be cast in a “populist” position—the party finds itself up against an opposition that, thanks to Justice Kennedy et al, is being backed by bottomless-pocketed plutocrats to an extent that we haven't witnessed in the modern political era. Not to mention that Obama's opponent is Willard Mitt Romney, a man so one-percentish that even plutocrat-approved primary opponents like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich couldn't resist getting all populist against him.
But I've nonetheless found TNR's week-long symposium on the question of whether Obama should strike a populist tone to be quite useful. And one can't help but wonder whether Obama himself, or at least some of his minions in Chicago, have been reading along, because Obama's campaign kickoff speeches in Ohio and Virginia Saturday seemed awfully in line with what the symposium's authors have, for the most part, been urging on him—a “populism” that is upbeat and aspirational rather than caustic, that harkens more to the Progressives than the Bryan-style Populists, that ties fairness to growth and opportunity, that warns against excessive inequality without dwelling on it. To this, Obama has added an element that is rooted in his political identity since arriving on the national stage eight years ago—a strongly communitarian note that carries echoes of the “common national purpose” message of Bobby Kennedy's that Ed Kilgore recommended to Obama. All in all, the message Obama unveiled Saturday comes off as less “us versus them” than “all together now.” It is less populist, really, than it is social democratic, in the post-war European sense of the term as defined and celebrated by Tony Judt. (Don't expect Chicago to pick up on this distinction—it is probably no more eager to see its candidate branded as a happy social democrat than as an angry populist.) This message hardly comes out of the blue—it builds on the forceful speeches Obama gave in Kansas last fall and more recently at the Associated Press editors' convention. But those speeches had a harder edge, over which Obama has now wrapped the positive sheen that a successful campaign requires.
I'll quote from Obama's Ohio speech at some length to show what I'm getting at, and to give readers a sense of what we'll apparently be hearing from the candidate for the months ahead. First came Obama's “how we got here” explanation—a carry-over from his 2008 diagnosis of how things had gotten out of whack in the country:
We came together because we believe that in America, your success shouldn’t be determined by the circumstances of your birth. If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a good job. If you’re willing to meet your responsibilities, you should be able to own a home, maybe start a business, give your children the chance to do even better—no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what your last name is.
We believe the free market is one of the greatest forces for progress in human history; that businesses are the engine of growth; that risk-takers and innovators should be rewarded. But we also believe that at its best, the free market has never been a license to take whatever you want, however you can get it; that alongside our entrepreneurial spirit and our rugged individualism, America only prospers when we meet our obligations to one another and to future generations.
We came together in 2008 because our country had strayed from these basic values. A record surplus was squandered on tax cuts for people who didn’t need them and weren’t even asking for them. Two wars were being waged on a credit card. Wall Street speculators reaped huge profits by making bets with other people’s money. Manufacturing left our shores. A shrinking number of Americans did fantastically well, while most people struggled with falling incomes, rising costs, the slowest job growth in half a century.
It was a house of cards that collapsed in the most destructive crisis since the Great Depression. In the last six months of 2008, even as we were campaigning, nearly three million of our neighbors lost their jobs. Over 800,000 more were lost in the month I took office alone.
A few moments later came the most classically “populist” part of the speech, the presentation of the choice that voters will face in November:
Now we face a choice. For the last few years, the Republicans who run this Congress have insisted that we go right back to the policies that created this mess. But to borrow a line from my friend Bill Clinton, now their agenda is on steroids. (Applause.) This time, they want even bigger tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. This time, they want even deeper cuts to things like education and Medicare, and research and technology.
This time, they want to give banks and insurance companies even more power to do as they please. And now, after a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a nominee for President who has promised to rubber-stamp this agenda if he gets the chance. Ohio, I tell you what: We cannot give him that chance. Not now. Not with so much at stake. This is not just another election. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and we’ve been through too much to turn back now.
We have come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years. We have to move forward, to the future we imagined in 2008, where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. That’s the choice in this election, and that’s why I’m running for a second term as President of the United States.
Obama then preceded to make the choice more personal, with his most direct comments to date about his opponent:
Governor Romney is a patriotic American who has raised a wonderful family, and he has much to be proud of. He’s run a large financial firm, and he’s run a state. But I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences. He sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money, the rest of us will automatically prosper as well.
When a woman in Iowa shared the story of her financial struggles, he responded with economic theory. He told her, “our productivity equals our income.” Well, let me tell you something. The problem with our economy isn’t that the American people aren’t productive enough—you’ve been working harder than ever. The challenge we face right now -- the challenge we faced for over a decade is that harder work hasn’t led to higher incomes. It’s that bigger profits haven’t led to better jobs.
Governor Romney doesn’t seem to get that. He doesn’t seem to understand that maximizing profits by whatever means necessary—whether through layoffs or outsourcing or tax avoidance or union-busting—might not always be good for the average American or for the American economy.
Why else would he want to spend trillions more on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Why else would he propose cutting his own taxes while raising them on 18 million working families? Why else would he want to slash the investments that have always helped the economy grow, but at the same time, stop regulating the reckless behavior on Wall Street that helped the economy crash?
Somehow, he and his friends in Congress think that the same bad ideas will lead to a different result. Or they’re just hoping you won’t remember what happened the last time we tried it their way. Well, Ohio, I’m here to say that we were there, we remember, and we are not going back. We are moving this country forward.
Look, we want businesses to succeed. We want entrepreneurs and investors rewarded when they take risks, when they create jobs and grow our economy. But the true measure of our prosperity is more than just a running tally of every balance sheet and quarterly profit report. I don’t care how many ways you try to explain it: Corporations aren’t people. People are people.
That last line is, of course, the one that was being tweeted out of the event. It is literally “populist”—it elevates the people against the corporations. But in the context of the communitarian riff that followed, it's more “Sesame Street” than All the King's Men. Here's what came next:
We measure prosperity not just by our total GDP; not just by how many billionaires we produce, but how well the typical family is doing—whether they can go as far as their dreams and hard work will take them. And we understand that in this country, people succeed when they have a chance to get a decent education and learn new skills—and, by the way, so do the businesses that hire them or the companies that they start.
We know that our economy grows when we support research into medical breakthroughs and new technologies that lead to the next Internet app or life-saving drug. We know that our country is stronger when we can count on affordable health insurance and Medicare and Social Security. When we protect our kids from toxic dumping and mercury pollution. When there are rules to make sure we aren’t taken advantage of by credit card companies and mortgage lenders and financial institutions. And we know these rules aren’t just good for seniors, or kids, or consumers—they're good for business, too. They're part of what makes the market work.
Look, we don’t expect government to solve all our problems, and it shouldn’t try. I learned from my mom that no education policy can take the place of a parent’s love and affection. As a young man, I worked with a group of Catholic churches who taught me that no poverty program can make as much of a difference as the kindness and commitment of a caring soul. Not every regulation is smart. Not every tax dollar is spent wisely. Not every person can be helped who refuses to help themselves.
But that’s not an excuse to tell the vast majority of responsible, hardworking Americans, “You’re on your own.” That unless you’re lucky enough to have parents who can lend you money, you may not be able to go to college. That even if you pay your premiums every month, you’re out of luck if an insurance company decides to drop your coverage when you need it most.
That’s not how we built America. That’s not who we are. We built this country together. We built this country together.
We built railroads and highways; the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge -- together. We sent my grandfather’s generation to college on the GI Bill—together. We instituted a minimum wage and worker safety laws—together. Together, we touched the surface of the moon, unlocked the mystery of the atom, connected the world through our own science and imagination. We did these things together—not because they benefited any particular individual or group, but because they made us all richer. Because they gave us all opportunity. Because they moved us forward together—as one people, as one nation.
That’s the true lesson of our past, Ohio. That’s the right vision for our future. And that’s why I’m running for President.
We built this country together. I'm pretty sure we'll be hearing even more of this line in the months ahead than the “people are people” line. (And it's surely no accident that Obama's new post-speech theme song is “We Take Care of Our Own,” from Springsteen's latest album.*) This is the kind of populism that is suited to Barack Obama—that evokes the warm glow of the 2004 convention speech while also drawing a clear distinction with the eat-what-you-kill ethos of Bain Capital and the Ayn Randianism of Romney's Washington ally, Paul Ryan. It summons to action the 99 percent in a way that does not traffic in class-warfare rhetoric (though he'll still be accused of that, of course.) Most importantly, it has an inspirational cast for a candidate who has far less potential be conjure a spark than he did four years ago, but must find a way to do so nonetheless. No way is Obama going to capture anything close to the spirit of the first go-round—not only are times tough, but re-elections are by definition less exciting (which is why it was a bit much for pundits to be noting portentously that only 14,000 of the 18,000 seats in Columbus were filled.) But he has to rekindle enough to carry him through, and it's hard to see how he could have settled on a better course to do so than he has here.
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*I updated this post Sunday night with a few small additions, including the Boss citation. I also corrected my reference to Obama's girlfriends -- his Pound and Yeats discussion was not with the daughter of the Australian diplomat, as previously stated.