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Obama’s reluctant populism irks left

NEWS
Obama’s reluctant populism irks left

Saturday, March 13, 2010

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 percent.

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’ reaction.

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 President 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 and 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.

“In 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 sync 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 on Monday, he took on insurance companies with a harsher tone than he has struck during the entire yearlong health care debate. He criticized them some two dozen times and said they’re all about “making big profits.”

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!”

“That’s 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 a 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 Research Center.

“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 Dimock.

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.”

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