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Why Obama's spokesman is angered, and pessimistic

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Acouple of weeks ago, when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was criticizing "the professional left" for prematurely finding fault with President Obama -- an act for which he later sought to make amends -- he did not, as far as I can recall, name names.

If he had, he might well have mentioned John B. Judis, the opinion journalist who wrote the cover story in the latest issue of the New Republic, "The Unnecessary Fall: A Counter-History of the Obama Presidency."

Gibbs's target was the left wing of the Democratic Party, which, rather than celebrating Obama's victories on health care and financial regulation, has piled up complaints about his failings at home and abroad.

Judis, a man of the left, decided to anticipate the voters' November verdict and rush his explanation of the Democrats' defeat into print without waiting for the election to be held.

Referring to the off-year setbacks in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, he wrote: "What doomed Obama politically was the way he dealt with the financial crisis in the first six months of his presidency. In an atmosphere primed for a populist backlash, he allowed the right wing to define the terms."

The problem, as Judis sees it, is that when "the public was up in arms," Obama did not do enough bashing of the banks. Instead, the president argued that excesses had been committed by everyone in "a perfect storm of irresponsibility" that implicated Wall Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and Main Street.

Judis quoted Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) as saying that because Obama "hired people from the culture of Wall Street" for top jobs in his administration and "failed to push Congress to immediately enact new financial regulations or even to set up a commission to investigate fraud," he "sparked a right-wing populist revolt in the country."

If Obama was not going to mount the barricades, then, in this version of history, the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck and Fox News would. No matter that their targets were different; to populists the anger always is believed to obliterate any substantive differences, let alone ideology.

I have witnessed this blurring before. When George McGovern was running for president, his pollster, Pat Caddell, argued that emphasizing his prairie populism would make McGovern an appealing candidate to millions of George Wallace's followers. It didn't matter, he thought, that they were mad about different things.

After many paragraphs lamenting "Obama's reluctance to rail against Wall Street," Judis does get around to acknowledging that reality, and not just rhetoric, does have some influence on the voters. "There is no doubt that, if the economy were growing faster, and if unemployment were dropping below 9 percent, Obama and the Democrats would be more popular and not fearing a November rout."

But even after acknowledging that fact, Judis quickly argues that rhetorical timidity bred equal cravenness in economic policy. So "the principal culprit is clearly Barack Obama. He has a strange aversion to confrontational politics." In other words, he outgrew the tactics of Saul Alinsky and never emulated those of Jesse Jackson. How odd.

What's worse, Judis says, Obama does not seem to realize that "populism has been an indelible part of the American political psyche, and those who are uncomfortable making populist appeals . . . suffer the consequences at the polls."


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