The Take

Obama goes populist as Democrats lick their wounds

By Dan Balz
Sunday, January 24, 2010

The populist drumbeat emanating from the White House is a predictable reaction to the shellacking Democrats took in Massachusetts last week and the drop that began some months ago in President Obama's poll numbers. It is at best a partial answer to what ails the president and Democrats in Congress.

The president's rhetoric over the past week suggests he has decided to try to fight anger with anger. If Americans are fed up with bank bailouts and bonuses going to their top executives, Obama wants people to believe that he resents them just as much.

Obama also has taken fresh aim at insurance and drug companies and other special interests as he tries to revive his health-care proposal, which, as a result of Republican Scott Brown's victory in the special Senate election in Massachusetts, will require major surgery if it is to survive.

Speaking at a town hall rally in Ohio on Friday, Obama ticked off some of the battles he has undertaken, portraying himself as standing against special interests on the issues of home foreclosures, deceptive credit card practices, pay equity for women, student loans and, of course, health care. "I can promise you there will be more fights ahead," he said.

His fight, fight, fight rhetoric marks a big change in his demeanor. Two years ago in Ohio, as he tried to win the primary against Hillary Rodham Clinton, she was the fighter, carrying the grievances and suffering of Ohio voters on her shoulders. Obama struggled to find his voice on economic issues.

Obama is not a natural populist, even though he once was a community organizer. As a candidate, he was the antithesis of the class warrior. He did not attack bank bailouts when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warned of an imminent collapse of the financial system in September 2008. He tried to inject some accountability into the Bush administration proposals but otherwise was an ally of Bernanke and Paulson in that episode.

He benefited politically from the economic implosion during the late stages of the presidential campaign, but not because he adopted a populist posture. Rather it was because voters judged his cool and restrained temperament as more presidential than that of John McCain, whose wobbly performance and often hot rhetoric made him appear intemperate in a crisis.

Still, there is little question that a dose of populist rhetoric holds the promise of some political benefit for Obama. When voters think the administration has done more for bankers and auto companies and big corporations than for them, the president has to show otherwise. Obama also clearly hopes to expose what he believes is Republican hypocrisy in reaping political dividends from the voters' anger while opposing new bank regulations and a health-care bill that the president says will check the power of insurance companies.

Obama, however, is trying to quell anger that points in two directions at once. Certainly, the public is agitated by the fact that Washington has showered money on big banks and automakers while workers are still losing their jobs. But there is plenty of dissatisfaction with Washington, for new spending and rising deficits and a health-care plan that puts government more directly into the nation's health-care system. Neutralizing that sentiment may be more difficult.

The Democrats face a backlash among independents and working-class white voters. Working-class voters helped elect a Republican in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and did the same in the Massachusetts Senate race. The Washington Post, in partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, conducted a post-election poll of Massachusetts voters that highlights the Democrats' problem.

In exit polls in Massachusetts from November 2008, Obama carried white voters without college degrees by 57 percent vs. 42 percent for his opponent. On Tuesday, Brown carried Massachusetts's white voters 62 percent to 37 percent over Democrat Martha Coakley. In 2008, these voters made up 41 percent of the Massachusetts electorate. Last Tuesday, they accounted for 49 percent.

Those white non-college voters are clearly skeptical about the amount of government the Obama administration is asking them to accept. Fifty percent of Massachusetts voters (down from 63 percent in November 2008) said last week that government should do more to solve problems facing the country. Among white non-college voters, support for government doing more was just 43 percent, according to the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey.

Obama is keenly aware of this challenge. "I understand how people have become mistrustful of government," Obama told his Ohio audience. "We don't need big government. We need smart government that works and interacts with the private sector to create opportunity for ordinary people." His new proposal to restrict banking practices, he argued, is not some big-government program but an attempt to protect the public from having to "foot the bill" for bankers' "dumb decisions."

Obama lamented that Republicans have made government's role an ideological issue, but to win this argument, he'll have to deliver meaningful progress, on jobs and even on health care, in a way that convinces people that bigger government also can be more effective government.

He also may have to take on Washington more effectively by attacking the deficit in more persuasive fashion and separating himself from Congress. He has been dragged down in part by months of focus on Democrats in Congress as they have tried to pass health-care reform and the spectacle of side deals being cut to secure the 60th vote in the Senate.

A veteran of the Clinton administration who remains close to this White House said last week, "I think [the president] has got to get un-Velcroed from the Hill. . . . Maybe in the first couple years, it's impossible to escape this. But I don't know that the solution to this is just more association with the Congress."

Wednesday's State of the Union speech will provide the first look at what the president intends to do next.

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