I've always found it humorous (and occasionally infuriating) when a clearly partisan commentator offers advice--helpful hints--to presidents or other figures on the other side of the aisle, as though they are genuinely trying to help.
The newest? David Frum's weekly CNN.com column, "'Obama the populist' doesn't ring true
." Before stepping in front of the country on Wednesday to give his first State of the Union address, Frum wanted to give some friendly advice to President Obama.
But not without one of Frum's signature backhanded lead-ins:
The president will respond as he always does to emergencies: with a speech. In this case, it's his State of the Union address. The Obama team always assumes the best remedy for any Obama difficulty is more Obama.
Frum, you may remember, has some experience with first State of the Union addresses. It was George W. Bush's first State of the Union address on January 29, 2002 when Frum authored
fictionalized the term "Axis of Evil," a term that helped normalize the false pretenses for the 2003 Iraq invasion.
But on this speech, Frum says Obama's "sharp populist turn" with harsh words toward banks and lobbyists is a trope that may work for short-term gain, but it would be short-lived for four reasons:
1) The new trope is not true to the president's own personality.
2) The new trope is not true to the record of the Obama administration.
3) The new trope is not true to Obama's political coalition.
4) The new trope is not true to Obama's original promise to the electorate.
You see, for Frum Obama is a "rational and technocratic" liberal, not a "fiery and populist" one; Obama "does not take from the rich and give to the poor;" Obama won because of poor and minorities and well-educated and wealthy; Obama "campaigned on a promise of unity."
Get the message? Not populism.
But it's Frum's trope that is outmoded.
Obama's brand of populism, as The American Prospect's Mark Schmitt put it in 2008, is populism without pitchforks
. It may not be perfected and it may not be firmly-rooted, but it is something that ought not be reverted to Frum's cynical and misguided understanding of what does or does not make Obama a populist, namely an "Us" against "Them" mentality that prevailed in every aspect of political life under the Bush administration.
Still, for Frum the bottom line is simple:
If you are a unifier, you have to do unity -- and do it all the time.
You cannot detour into attack mode for temporary advantage and then return again to the unity message when it suits you. If you do, you make yourself exactly the thing you identified as the chief evil of the society: a divider, a hunter of scapegoats.
What David Frum could stand to learn is that there are times to conciliate, times to fight, times to lead and times to listen. Is Frum suggesting that Obama's tone should have been conciliatory when discussing bankers and lobbyists when he was in Elyria, OH last week?
Of course, it's easy to see how Frum would be narrow-minded on this. After all, he worked for an administration that met every problematic nail with the tools of force, torture and death.