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Obama's Populism

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Whenever President Obama starts sounding like an economic progressive, as he did when he used his constitutional power to make recess appointments, or when he vowed to extend the payroll tax cuts without harming Social Security or Medicare, you can count on his critics to accuse him of resorting to "populism" or "class warfare."

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, warned that Obama had been elected to be a conciliator, not a populist (look at what his conciliator phase got him).

When Obama had kind words for the Wall Street protesters, Bloomberg BusinessWeek warned that, "populism shouldn't be Obama's battle cry."

Obama, warned Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal, "pits American against American on the basis of their bank accounts, saying it's time for 'millionaires and billionaires' to 'pay their fair share.'"

Typically, the people who disparage "populism" either have a self-interest in damping down popular comprehension of just who has been wrecking the economy, or they are supporters of a perverse austerity agenda, or they worry that Obama's "populism", more consistently applied, just might work.

Yet it's a pity that the defense of working people and the policies that help them gets described by a word that has ugly overtones. Populism, in the late 19th Century, described a movement that sought to protect farmers and artisans from bankers, tight money policies and the economic influence of railroads and other monopolists. One wing of the populist movement was also racist, though the other wing was remarkably integrationist.

In recent years, far-right nationalists in Europe and elsewhere who scapegoat immigrants and appeal to narrow-minded nationalism are also described as "populist," as are economic radicals who criticize rules of international trade that benefits multinational corporations but not workers.

So when a newspaper column or conservative politician describes a liberal leader as resorting to "populism," there is usually an undertone of disapproval, and the implication that the leader is appealing demagogically to people's baser instincts.

The sloppy use of an ambiguous label in turn leads to sloppy logic. It doesn't follow that economic progressives are extreme nationalists, demagogues, much less racists -- but "populism" conveniently carries that freight.

Consider: The Republican strategy of paralyzing agencies of which they disapprove by refusing to confirm their officials is harming consumers and working people. It is hardly "populist" in the ugly sense of the word to remedy that blockade by using the president's power to make a recess appointment.

Nor is it "populist" in the odious meaning of the word to defend Social Security and Medicare from the Right and center-right's cynical use of the fiscal crisis to undermine programs that did not cause it. Rather, Obama's refusal to let social insurance be the scapegoat is just good progressive politics.

It would be nice if we had a word like "populist" that meant defense of regular people against the malign influence of economic royalists, but without the overtones of nativism or racism. But we don't, so it is more honest and accurate to refer simply to these policies simply as economic progressivism.

As for class warfare, it's here. The policies of the past three decades, whether on taxes, de-regulation, outsourcing, the assault on unions, or the deliberate weakening of social insurance, have been top-down class warfare. It's just charming that when progressives begin to show some spine and start fighting back, the Right screams "class warfare!" They should know.

The French have a nice rhyming couplet that describes this gambit: Cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l'attaque, il se defend. ("This animal is very wicked. When you attack it, it defends itself.")

The only thing wrong with Obama's populism, excuse me, his economic progressivism, is that it took him until nearly the year of his re-election to practice it resolutely. More, please.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril. Follow Bob at RobertKuttner.com.

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