In his deficit-reduction proposal, unveiled in his Rose Garden speech on Monday, President Obama once again found himself adopting the other party’s frame, embracing budget austerity instead of the fiscal stimulus that the economy needs. He still talks about finding bipartisan consensus and describes his ideas as common-sense solutions that every well-intentioned person should support, even though Republicans have shown they’ll block anything with his name on it. His plan accepts the Republican claim that the problem is spending, not revenues, and proposes to cut spending by two dollars for every dollar it would raise in revenue. By embracing reductions in Medicare spending, he kneecaps Democrats who want to campaign next year by attacking Republicans for proposing Medicare cuts. And his threshold for higher taxes has quadrupled! It used to be families earning more than $250,000 a year would pay more—now it’s just millionaires! If this is Obama’s opening bid, imagine what he’ll negotiate it down to.
Is this really how I see it? No. But it’s a perfectly plausible view, and would be in keeping with the critique of the administration from the left over the last several months. Yet the skeptical left and the disinterested media alike saw Obama’s plan as the dramatic “populist shift,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, that’s been urged on him for many months. While there is a turn in language and emphasis, there’s far more continuity than discontinuity between the old Obama, the technocrat, and the new one, the populist. And that raises the question of just what populism represents in the current environment.
The budget plan, in my real view, strikes a nice balance between leaving room for stimulus in the short term (through the separate jobs bill), and responsible fiscal balance, finding lots of overlooked sources of savings, such as selling excess federal property, and trimming entitlement spending in mostly the right way. I wish the tax side of it didn’t focus solely on millionaires, creating in effect a second complicated Alternative Minimum Tax to go along with the messy one that Congress has to “fix” every year. If long-term fiscal sustainability is the goal, the president should acknowledge that all of the upper-middle class is going to have to pay somewhat more than their record low tax levels, not just those making more than $250,000 or a million.
But it’s hardly “populist,” in the sense of drawing the lines of “the people versus the powerful,” as Al Gore put it in his famous brief pose as a populist in 2001. Even the tax increase on millionaires was validated by a billionaire, Warren Buffett. “It’s not class warfare; it’s math,” Obama said, but just as it’s not class warfare, a few words about the wealthy paying “their fair share” hardly deserves the name of populism.
Real populism, the populism of William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long, is not just a fresh suit of clothes on a government-shrinking deficit-reduction proposal or mildly progressive tax rates. Real populism is dangerous—it threatens the overall structure of power as well as economic advantage in society. Historically, populism has been threatening to all elites, liberal as well as conservative. (Some argue that in the modern context, populism inevitably slides toward the Tea Party’s or Sarah Palin’s right-wing version. I don’t think that’s true; a left-wing, anti-corporate populism is theoretically possible. We just don’t see much of it in the political mainstream.)
That the Democrats calling on Obama to embrace populism are satisfied with this mild, non-threatening, Buffett-approved version is strange. And it’s not really new: One of the loudest voices attacking Obama for “intellectual elitism” and calling for him to “talk using populist language” was former Ohio Democratic Governor Ted Strickland. But before he put the “former” in front of his name, Strickland was bragging about how he had worked with business and Republicans to cut taxes and cut the size of state government, and refused to take a stand on extending the Bush tax cuts. Populist language is easier to adopt when out of office.
And that may be the cause of the slight shift in Obama’s language as well. We’ve probably moved out of the zone where Obama or Congress is going to get much done. Maybe a little bit of Obama’s jobs bill can pass, but not enough to turn around the economy, unfortunately. It’s also increasingly likely that the “supercommittee” tasked with more budget cuts, to whom Obama’s proposal was addressed, won’t amount to anything, joining dozens of long-forgotten budget gimmicks and commissions before it. The time for “putting points on the board,” as Rahm Emanuel described legislative accomplishments, is over; the time for drawing the lines of conflict for the 2012 election has begun. (Perhaps too late.) And as Strickland shows, populism works better when you’re not trying to govern than when you are.
Still, Obama faces a dilemma: His electoral coalition in 2008 had a barbell shape—he did well with those earning less than $50,000 and with people earning more than $200,000, and better than previous Democrats among people earning more than $100,000. Where he struggled was with people in the $50,000-$75,000 range, those near or just above the median income, where the recession and housing crises have had appreciable impact. That’s a gap he has to repair, that’s where the greatest anger is, and populist rhetoric might help. But he can’t afford to lose the better-off voters (not donors, just upper-middle-class voters) who were part of the original coalition.
To finesse that, he needs not real populism, which isn’t in his blood, but a rich language of national purpose and shared commitment—including shared sacrifice. The point of conflict is not between the people and the powerful, but between the vast majority of us and a small, extremist faction that doesn’t have the economy or the country’s best interests at heart. That language, which will sound a lot more like the unifying Obama of 2008 through 2010, may be called many things, but populist shouldn’t be one of them.
Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.