What's Behind Obama's New Populist Tone?
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President Obama’s Tuesday speech in Osawatomie, Kan., essentially served as the kickoff of his reelection effort. He may make a more formal declaration over the next few months, but the hour-long address, which was designed to evoke the Bull Moose spirit of Teddy Roosevelt and featured a comprehensive defense of government’s role in combating income inequality and fortifying the middle class, provided a preview of the themes Obama will emphasize between now and next November.
His embrace of defiant, populist messaging also represents a final, definitive break with the bipartisan-friendly political style that defined Obama’s rise to power and the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency.
To understand this evolution, it may be useful to first look back at the most famous passage of the speech that made Obama a star, his keynote addressat the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.
Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America. The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.
At the time, this made for the perfect marriage of message and messenger. In the wake of the 2000 election and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the country seemed hopelessly divided, then out of nowhere came this rhetorically gifted fresh face with an inspiring life story. Across the spectrum, the general instinct of those who saw Obama was to like him. So when the antiwar Democratic base found out that he’d spoken out against the war before it had started, they had just the credible outsider they needed to oppose Hillary Clinton for the 2008 nomination. And when Obama won that contest, he faced a general election audience that was beyond tired of George W. Bush and more than ready to give the Democrats a chance to run the White House; the cooperative, can-do spirit of Obama’s rhetoric was all the reassurance they needed.
But that’s when Obama’s bipartisan posturing lost its power with the public. More than anything, swing voters judge presidents on the state of the economy, so starting on Jan. 20, 2009, calls for unity and common purpose were only going to help Obama if they inspired Republicans in Capitol Hill to work cooperatively with him and enact an economy-spurring agenda. And the Obama-era Republican Party — which is composed of true-believers who are convinced he’s seeking to impose a radical, Marxist agenda and one-time pragmatists who now live in fear of being seen by the true-believers as enablers of that radical, Marxist agenda — had no interest in doing that.
The best Obama could muster was three GOP votes (out of a combined 218 House and Senate Republicans) for an insufficient stimulus that, thanks to unyielding attacks from Republicans over its $787 billion price-tag, made unifying Democrats to push for a badly needed follow-up package impossible. Otherwise, the signature achievements of Obama’s first two years in office came through politically draining party-line votes, and with economic anxiety still soaring and Democrats sitting on dozens of marginal House and Senate seats, the 2010 midterms produced an epic GOP landslide.