Should Obama Have Gone with Populism?

by John J. Pitney, Jr.

In The New Republic, John Judis argues that President Obama should have taken a populist tone right from the start of his presidency. The administration could have gotten a much bigger stimulus, says Judis, “if the president had framed the issue in terms of rescuing the middle class from damage done by Wall Street speculators, short-sighted CEOs, and Chinese mercantilism; and directly attacked Republicans as heartless obstructionists.”

Unlike a computer game, history does not let us rerun events to see what a different approach would have produced. Still, there is reason to doubt Judis’s recommendation. Many of the president’s supporters saw him as a post-partisan unifier, and they would have been shocked to see him immediately draw his rhetorical sword. A verbal attack on China would have been out of character for someone whose inaugural address promised “greater cooperation and understanding between nations.” And it would have been bizarre for him to go after the financial industry as a whole. During the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama received $14.9 million in campaign contributions from the securities and investment industry, the most of any presidential candidate by far. In April 2008, Andrew Sorkin of the New York Times observed: “Mr. Obama might be struggling with the blue-collar vote in Pennsylvania, but he has nailed the hedge fund vote.”

As James Ceaser recently noted in The Weekly Standard, the president has recently tried populism — and succeeded only in making himself seem unpresidential. Had he grabbed for his pitchfork in January 2009, his slide might have come even sooner.

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