The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
News Features  |  Talking Politics  |  This Just In

Mr. Populist?

Populism has many faces . . . but Obama's not one of them
By STEVEN STARK  |  March 25, 2009


Barack Obama is an inspirational leader, a potential realigner, and a racial trailblazer. But he's not a populist — and given his handling of the AIG debacle, it's clear that he'll never be one. With good reason.

Populism comes in many guises and is constantly in flux. In general, though, relying on the work of Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion, it is a powerful mass movement, somewhat out of the political mainstream, grounded in typically American language that characterizes politics as a struggle between ordinary people and a self-serving, undemocratic elite. Anyone who convincingly appropriates the jargon ("special interests") and the enemies' list (distant government, the media, intellectuals, the eastern establishment), can be considered something of a populist.

Anyone, that is, except for the president.

It's hard, after all, for a commander in chief to stand in opposition to the government he leads. (Ronald Reagan was able to do it, but it helped that the House was controlled by the opposite party for his presidency and he could run against it.)

Plus, Ivy League–educated, well-traveled Obama has the wrong background and temperament to grab the pitchfork.

If there are those who love Harvard intellectuals more than Harvard intellectual Obama himself, it would be hard to find them. The financial elite, too, seems to have a friend in the White House with in-house adviser (and former Harvard president) Larry Summers, if not Obama himself — and they certainly have one over at the Treasury Department with Tim Geithner.

Moreover, no candidate other than JFK has been more beloved by the establishment press corps. It's hard to conceive that Obama would ever attack the media to flaunt a populist muscle.

That means he's going to have to find a way to head off the nation's current populist fervor without actually becoming one himself.

Easier said than done.

Racial tension
There's another reason — and a good one — why Obama will shy away from populism. Throughout its history, the ideology has frequently had racist overtones. In its rise in the 1880s and 1890s, the same leaders who were calling for power to the people, such as "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, were doing their best to disenfranchise blacks.

Ever since in the north, according to Bob Moser in Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority, "populism has always been tainted, understandably enough, by the ugly legacy of the most colorful 'people's champions' of the South."

That's why, of course, populists — and their adherents — almost always come from the South, particularly its rural regions. Put another way, a Hawaiian who moves to Chicago is an unlikely populist. An African-American with that same background makes for an even unlikelier one.

Emotionally, Obama doesn't cut it, either. Modern-day populists tend to follow the path of the originals — people like Georgia's Tom Watson, who, it was said, "talked like the thrust of a Bowie knife."

From Mary ("Raise Less Corn and More Hell") Lease to Alabama's George Wallace, who used to send the large crowds who greeted him into a frenzy, populism has been associated with rabble-rousers. Love him or not, this president is anything but.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: A meme deferred, Revenge of the nerds, Nice package, More more >
  Topics: Stark Ravings , Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Politics,  More more >
| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular   Most Viewed 
[ 12/14 ]   Ximena Sarinana + Graffiti 6  @ T.T. the Bear's Place
[ 12/14 ]   La Cage aux Folles  @ Shubert Theatre
[ 12/14 ]   "Hungry For Death: Destroy All Monsters"  @ Boston University Art Gallery
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   DEMOCRATS AGAINST OBAMA  |  November 03, 2010
    Now that the midterm wipeout has concluded, analysts are already sizing up the GOP challengers to a weakened Barack Obama. Not only that: some Democratic party elders are considering the once-unthinkable scenario of a debilitating challenge to Barack Obama from inside his party.
  •   THE INDEPENDENT HERD  |  October 06, 2010
    The big news in this election cycle is the rise of the Tea Party. Fair enough. But passing under the radar is an accompanying development that could have even more far-reaching consequences — the rise of an emboldened third force in our politics.
  •   THE AMERICAN IDOL PARTY  |  September 23, 2010
    Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell might not turn out to be good candidates, but they make great television.
  •   HAS OBAMA PEAKED? YES, HE HAS  |  November 12, 2009
    To listen to some pundits, Barack Obama's public image began taking a serious beating when the off-year election returns came in a week ago. Or maybe it was the undeserved Nobel Prize, his approach to the war in Afghanistan, or when he revved up his pursuit of national health-care reform.

 See all articles by: STEVEN STARK

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed