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Obama’s Populist Pivot Yields to Pragmatism

President Barack Obama’s attempted switch to a hard-hitting William Jennings Bryan-style populist following the Jan. 19 special election for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts was not particularly convincing. Why would someone who is happily compared to Washington, Lincoln and FDR, now vie for the crown of a three-time presidential loser?

[IMGCAP(1)]The attempted makeover of the cool, dispassionate and cerebral “no drama Obama” into a fire-and-brimstone pulpit-pounder is about as credible as morphing methodical law professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. of “The Paper Chase” into effusive evangelist Elmer Gantry. And judging from the 500-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average in the final three days of Obama’s makeover week, it’s not the kind of change investors had in mind, either.

That jarring bell-ringer from Wall Street probably forced reassessments at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue over just how tough and angry a populist attack is advisable given the potential for dealing a further psychological blow to the economy. There are times when you hope all that talk is only that — just talk.

It’s not difficult to understand why the president came out swinging, feigning anger and a newfound empathy for “tea party” protesters and other anxious Americans. Critics have been regularly hammering the president for not identifying more convincingly with the real concerns of average Americans. One can just hear the president’s political advisers sounding like so many grade school basketball coaches, screaming, “Pivot, pivot, pivot!” and the president reflexively responding, “Fight, fight, fight!” and “jobs, jobs, jobs!” (One opinion writer even seriously urged the president to give up golf and go back to basketball — “a game of the people.”)

But you don’t create new jobs by going to war with business, banks and Wall Street — the very people whose confidence and resources are needed to foster jobs in the private sector. By Feb. 10, in the midst of Washington’s “snowmageddon,” Obama was already cooling his rhetoric and professing to Bloomberg News that he is “business friendly” and a “fierce advocate” of our free-enterprise system (sending the Dow up 106 points the next day).

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill the Democrats have been in a state of disarray over the meaning of the Massachusetts debacle and where they should go from here. Progressives read it as a rejection of weak compromises and a call to return to bold ideas and robust government. Moderates see it as a repudiation of the big-bang approach to governing (doing a lot of big things at once to build momentum for success).

Republicans, on the other hand, are positively giddy about the results but still divided over whether to lie low and let Democrats self-destruct or to weigh in with constructive solutions to the serious problems confronting Americans.

Members of both parties have one thing in common: They are assiduously sifting through the tea leaves of the Massachusetts election hoping to decipher the code for their own electoral success in November. One can just imagine campaign coffers around the country being siphoned of “cash for pickups.”

“What Were They Thinking?” questioned one headline, as if Massachusetts voters had lost their minds in electing the first Republican Senator since 1972. A Washington Post-Kaiser Foundation-Harvard poll of Bay State voters after the election attempted to answer that question. According to the Post’s summary of the findings, “Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, antipathy toward federal government activism and opposition to the Democrats’ health care proposals drove the upset election of Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown.”

When asked what the single most important factor was in their vote, “health care reform efforts in Washington” topped “the economy and jobs” among Brown voters, 36 percent to 17 percent, with “the way Washington is working” coming in third at 14 percent.

Lest Republicans conclude that these responses validate a strategy of continuing to oppose the president and Congressional Democrats at every turn, they should take a deeper look at the poll’s findings. Three-quarters of Brown voters said he should work with Democrats to get Republican ideas into legislation generally. Although 80 percent of Brown voters oppose the health care changes being proposed by Congress and the president, 48 percent said Brown should work with Democrats on changes in the system, while 50 percent said he should not. That latter split in opinion over cooperating on health care may reflect a public perception that it’s too late in the legislative process to meaningfully engage Republicans. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what the president did by inviting a bipartisan group of Members to this Thursday’s televised health care summit at Blair House.

Republicans understandably sensed a “setup” or “trap,” especially after being bested by Obama in their televised exchange at the House Republicans’ issues conference in Baltimore on Jan. 29. However, it is in the president’s interest to seriously engage Republicans since neither the House nor Senate health care bills could pass either chamber today — victims of a critical Mass. (as in the state of). If the president is only out to score more political points by exposing fault lines in Republican ideas, he will doom any chance of enacting his signature policy initiative.

Obama is not a populist, socialist or ideologue. He is a hard-nosed, left-of-center pragmatist who senses after Massachusetts that the country is drifting back to center-right. He has not ushered in a post-partisan era by ignoring Republicans in his first year in office; and in losing a filibuster-proof Senate in Massachusetts, he can no longer afford to do so if he wants to get anything done. He must now demonstrate he can work across the aisle on issues of shared interest. Whether Congressional Democrats and Republicans will let him is another question.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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