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Pivoting to Populism

Barack Obama answers a question at a campaign event yesterday in Elkart, Ind.
Barack Obama answers a question at a campaign event yesterday in Elkart, Ind. (By Joe Raymond -- Associated Press)
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By Ruth Marcus
Thursday, August 7, 2008

ELKHART, Ind. -- Barack Obama is cranking up the populist rhetoric.

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He'll sock oil companies with a windfall profits tax to give American families a $1,000 "energy rebate," he tells voters at a town hall meeting in Youngstown, Ohio, on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Obama says, John McCain would lavish "$4 billion more in tax breaks to the biggest oil companies in America -- including $1.2 billion to Exxon Mobil . . . a company that, last quarter, made the same amount of money in 30 seconds that a typical Ohio worker makes in a year."

This turn to populism is not an extreme political makeover. Rather, it's a distinct tonal shift as the Democratic presidential candidate finishes a trip through three swing states -- Michigan, Ohio and Indiana -- where blue-collar voters aren't necessarily on board. Listen to Obama, and you hear the distant strains of Al Gore 2000: "the people versus the powerful."

The traditional transition from primary to general election campaigning involves stepping gingerly, preferably unobtrusively, toward the center. Obama swiftly executed that pivot, from backing the warrantless wiretapping compromise to speaking supportively of a Supreme Court ruling expanding gun rights to criticizing another ruling that invalidated the death penalty for child rape.

But much as John McCain needs to cultivate his party's still-skeptical base, Obama needs to tend to the anxieties of blue-collar Democratic voters in states such as Ohio who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in the primary. More broadly, he needs to speak to the cascading economic worries felt by voters of both parties, or no party at all.

Later that day, on board his campaign plane en route to a town hall meeting here, I ask Obama about this louder populist backbeat. Does a message that might resonate with Hillary Clinton Democrats risk alienating Republicans or independent voters?

"I don't think people are disturbed by that argument," he says, as long as they "feel like you are mindful [that] the market is still the best way to allocate resources productively, that some of the excesses of the '60s and '70s may have hampered economic growth, that we don't want to return to marginal tax rates of 60 or 70 percent."

But, I point out, there wasn't a lot of that sort of free-market talk in Obama's Ohio remarks.

"The people are hurting right now," Obama replies, adding that his energy plan emphasizes job creation through private enterprise. "We've become so accustomed to thinking that there's two ways of looking at the economy. Either you don't give a hoot about what's happening in the daily lives of people, so you don't talk about it . . . or conversely, you are, you know, out there raging against the machine."

Obama argues that his brand of populism is not aimed as much at frustration with big business as with disappointment with dysfunctional government. "When you hear me talk about people versus the powerful, my populism is built most powerfully around the sense that government is nonresponsive to these folks," he says. "They're probably less angry at Wall Street for making money and angrier at Washington for not just setting up some basic rules of the road."

Are oil companies, I ask, more morally culpable than other industries that would not be subject to Obama's proposed tax?

"Not in the view of most economists," Obama replies. "I'm well aware of the argument [about] singling out oil companies rather than soda pop manufacturers."

Yes, but what does Obama himself believe? "I think oil companies are amoral. They want to make as much money as they can for their shareholders, which is what corporations do," he says. "The difference is the nature of the kind of outsized profits they make that may have no relationship to their investments or their production. The fact, for example, [that] the shortage of refinery capacity could actually increase their profits so the less they invest the more they make indicates that you are not dealing with someone making widgets out there."

Obama circled back to our conversation when a questioner at yesterday's town hall meeting asked why he singled out oil companies. This time his answer ventured beyond refinery capacity and widgets.

"So the question is, does it make more sense for the oil companies to pay for it or does it make more sense for the struggling waitress who is barely getting by to pay for it?" he said. "And the answer is, I'm going to fight for the waitress, not because I hate the oil companies but because I think it's more fair."

Also, waitresses vote.

marcusr@washpost.com


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