Obama's Populist Peril


In negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling, President Barack Obama recently attacked the aviation and oil industries. He appears to be on the brink of a populist turn, which conservative campaign strategists will welcome. Although it has a respected pedigree in American history, populism has worked in only one Democratic presidential campaign in the last 35 years.

Airlines are able to write off expenses budgeted for the next seven years, which Obama wants to reduce to five. But, the savings to the American people will be paltry at only $3 billion, or 0.2% of the $1.65 trillion deficit. His attack on the oil industry was similar, and would net equally insignificant savings. In both cases, Obama seems to be pitting the ordinary American against evil capitalists.

Populism is the belief that big institutions, public and private, are the enemy of the common man (particularly when run by the “better sort” of people). Thomas Jefferson, believing that yeoman farmers were better for a republic, was the populist to Alexander Hamilton’s class of bankers. Andrew Jackson was the populist in taking on Biddle and the Bank. In the 20th century, populism has been associated with both the Left (think of famers and workers in the New Deal coalition) and the Right (think lower and middle class whites post-1968). Populism is neither a force for good nor evil; simply, it can be either or both.

The last time a Democrat won the presidency in the modern era with a strongly populist message was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, campaigned cross country and door-to-door. However, the same magic did not work in 1980 when the country rejected his economic populism, and instead embraced the free market.

In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned from the beginning as a “New Democrat.” When most others in his party were speaking the language of economic populism, Clinton accepted the free market and emphasized the need for welfare reform.

Al Gore and Joe Lieberman rejected this mantle in 2000. They adopted the populist campaign slogan, “The people vs. the powerful.” As a result, they barely won the popular vote by 0.5%, when they should have dominated by 5%; it was not enough to get a majority in the Electoral College. Bob Shrum, the man behind “The people vs. the powerful,” guided John Kerry’s campaign in the same act of seppuku in 2004. Shrum has led eight presidential campaigns to defeat.

Obama used populist rhetoric in 2008, but the better explanation for his victory was the anti-Bush independent vote and his ability to convince moderates that he was himself moderate. Obama often couched strident populist measures in general statements of principle, which made the specifics easier to swallow. But, as the president himself admitted, “hope and change” are not as cool in the upcoming election. This time, specifics will matter.

Obama has never been enthusiastic about his identity as a New Democrat. Although he assured New Democrat Coalition members that he was indeed a New Democrat in 2009, he requested that his name be removed from the New Democrat Directory in 2003. His recent populist attacks on the aviation and oil industries are in keeping with such ambivalence.

Conservatives should not fear any effort by Obama to pit Main Street against Wall Street, if only because of the historical record. Time and again, Americans have demonstrated that economic populism is not a winning strategy. There is no reason to think 2012 will be any different.

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