Going into the State of the Union, it was easy to expect a speech steeped in populism. The consensus was that the White House had misjudged the country's anger over bailouts and unemployment, all of which boiled over in Massachusetts. And so, beginning last Wednesday, Obama went out of his way to channel that anger at Wall Street. "We're about to get into a big fight with the banks," the president told George Stephanopoulos the day after the Kennedy seat went Republican.
Close observers of the White House only affirmed this impression, noting the re-emergence of Obama's chief counselor, David Axelrod. Axelrod is known within the administration as a champion of the little guy and an enemy to overdogs. According to recent reports, he helped persuade Obama to pursue the latest round of tough-minded Wall Street reforms.
But whatever his economic worldview, Axelrod is first and foremost the chief curator of the Obama brand. Alongside the president himself, he is the man most responsible for the persistent hope-mongering of 2008. Which is why, in retrospect, Axelrod's tighter grip on the reins didn't foreshadow an embrace of class-consciousness. It foreshadowed a return to the themes of the Obama campaign.
At certain points, in fact, Obama sounded much more like a candidate than an incumbent president. He repeatedly singled out Washington for abuse, as though he'd spent the last several years in some provincial capital. "Washington has been telling us to wait for decades even as the problems have grown worse," he complained. He railed against the city's customs ("fighting the same tired battles"), its currency ("earmarks"), and its denizens ("lobbyists"). He panned its cherished pastimes ("saying anything about the other side, no matter how false") and its most scrupulously-practiced rituals (greeting "every day" like it's "Election Day"). If Clinton famously adopted "triangulation," in which he put distance between congressional Democrats on his left and congressional Republicans on his right, Obama has embraced something akin to "cancellation"--ending his brief membership in the beltway establishment and rediscovering his outsider roots.
But Obama's successful campaigns were about much more than standard Washington-bashing. They were primarily about unity--common purpose, common ideals and ambitions. In his campaign for Senate in 2004, Obama was fond of pointing out that Americans mostly want the same thing: a chance to build a decent life. He echoed that language last night, noting that, while Americans may have different backgrounds and beliefs, "The aspirations they hold are shared: A job that pays the bills. A chance to get ahead." Likewise, I'm sure most viewers heard echoes of Obama's famous 2004 convention speech in his closing riff on our values: not "Republican values" or "Democratic values," but "American values."
As in the 2008 campaign, Obama placed himself and the country in a long line of dreamers who refused to be discouraged by impossible odds. Back then he joked about what would have happened had John Kennedy looked up at the moon and said, "Darn, that's far." Last night he riffed on what would have happened if earlier generations had been afraid to do "what was needed even when success was uncertain."
One can argue that preaching uplift and unity are a necessity for a black candidate hoping to win over a majority white electorate. Or that these impulses were a natural outgrowth of Obama's biography (a man who spent his young adulthood trying to break into elite institutions isn't likely to turn around and bash elites). Whatever the case, divisiveness just doesn't come naturally to this president. The last few weeks of jawboning with the banks felt vaguely reminiscent of the moment in 2007 when Obama announced he was getting tough with Hillary, only to mostly lose his nerve once the klieg lights were shining.
And so, as in Iowa, Axelrod and the rest of the president's inner circle have calculated that the president is better off staying true to his persona than faking something he's not just because the moment seems to demand it. I'm not convinced it'll work--there are an awful lot of people out there just itching for a banker to hate. But, then, it's probably way too early in this presidency to get away from the things that got you here.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.