09/10/2010 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama the Populist

Barack Obama has never been easy to characterize or categorize: the nation's first African-American president, raised in Hawaii by his white mother and white grandparents from Kansas; the community organizer who headed the Harvard Law Review; the Chicago pol who may be our most intellectual president ever; the president who finally passed a bill to provide health coverage for nearly all our citizens and yet managed to tick off progressives while he did it.

Add in the whole populist thing to this list of contradictory things. Obama has not been a populist president in either style or policy substance. But now at his moment of greatest political peril (so far, at least -- we'll see where things are in the fall of 2012), he turns to a populist tone and rhetoric that is heartening for an old Midwestern populist like me to see. Starting with the little-noticed radio address in August taking on big corporate special interests and the Citizens United decision, then continuing this week with the Milwaukee Labor Day speech, the Cleveland economic speech on Wednesday, and the press conference this morning, Obama is aggressively taking on the bad-actor, big-business special interests, taking on tax cuts for millionaires, taking on trickle-down economics.

Welcome to the barricades, Mr. President. I know that you and us old-school populists still don't agree on some specific economic policies or appointees, but it is good to see that you get what the polls have been showing for a long time now: voters are frustrated with corporate special interests running things and are tired of the wealthy and powerful getting inside deals, even while the economy is hurting.

This is the only path for Democrats to have a chance at surviving the fall elections. Take on the Wall Street marauders who took down our economy and who are giving themselves bonuses while refusing to help homeowners save their homes or small businesses invest in new jobs. Take on the health insurers who are still jacking up rates and trying to deny people coverage. Take on the big oil companies who are working to stop any efforts to create more green jobs. These are the guys who have been running Washington for too long, and who, truth be told, are still way too powerful.

It is ironic that groups like Third Way and pundits like Matt Bai still deride populism when every Democratic pollster and committee staffer and campaign manager I talk to agrees that economic populism like the president has been displaying this week are the only hope us Democrats desperately trying to win races in the real America have left. I loved Third Way leader Jim Kessler's quote in the Sunday WaPo: "[Democrats] must resist the temptation to succumb to a populism that portrays members of the middle class as weak, powerless victims." Hard to disagree with that -- I have never found that whole weak, powerless victim thing very helpful in my political messaging. Fortunately, the kind of populism the president and other Democrats are finally rallying around has nothing to do with weak, powerful victimhood. Quite the opposite, in fact: what we are arguing for is the other 98% of us taking on the powerful so that we can restore our democracy and rebuild our economy from the bottom-up.

This message strategy can work if we stick to it and make it believable by proposing policies that really do help the middle class.

Cross-posted at my home blog,, where you can read all of my other writing.

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