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Jan 30, 2010 5:52 pm

Obama's Unbelievable Populist Act

Jesse Walker's work always gives historians much food for thought. In this article for the Wall Street Journal, he traces how Obama follows in a long tradition of politicians who tried to reinvent themselves as populists. Obama will have a more uphill battle than most in pulling off this feat:

To cast this man as a populist, you needn't merely imagine an alternate America where a William Jennings Bryan, the explosive orator who ran unsuccessfully three times for the White House in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has actually captured the presidency. You need to imagine a Bryan who went to Harvard and taught at an elite law school, who received more money than his opponent from Wall Street and the corporate media, who personally intervened during the presidential campaign to help a bank bailout become law, who surrounded himself with advisers drawn from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, and whose solution to an economic crisis has been to propose a program of corporate subsidies. A populist? Even at his most liberal, pushing a plan to move the country toward universal health coverage, Mr. Obama's idea of advancing reform is to cut deals with all the industries involved so they'll back his legislation.

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Maarja Krusten - 1/31/2010

In the working world, new employees often are advised to quietly observe how others around them act and to seek out mentors who can explain the workplace culture. What Mr. Walker overlooks are some key components of the “workplace” culture. Many players in the political world use a crippling blame/praise template which obscures the complexity of some issues. There’s a lot of dissonance out there, too. Politicians decry the nanny state, but coddle voters by creating an emotional nanny state.

A letter to the editor in the NYT on Jan. 28 captured this beautifully: “It’s not just the populist who, as David Brooks says, ‘absolves voters of responsibility for their problems.’ It’s also almost every politician and elected official. One of the bedrock rules of political life is never to blame the American people: we are invariably decent, generous, hard-working, wise and, always, better than the people who govern us.”

It’s as if in order to hold on to his job, a professor, instead of trying to analyze issues in a lecture, were forced to praise his students, assure them they were wiser than s/he and to feed their egos in order even to try to get them to listen. Perhaps a professor might do it for job preservation but underneath, he or she would realize how silly and humiliating and how fundamentally weakening for your work environment it is. Put that way, an academic can develop some sympathy for what presidents and politicians have to go through.

Overlook how vexing it is to work in an environment and you risk misunderstanding it. Mr. Walker should consider what Obama -- and everyone who runs for office, in both parties -- is up against. Whether it is the politicians who have infantilized many of the voters or the voters who often handcuff the politicians with their addiction to verbal comfort food, there are deeply entrenched and crippling practices that are hard to overcome. The reasons lie in their foundation in emotional nees. As Daniel Larison observed about extreme criticism of Barack Obama and George W. Bush in a recent article in American Conservative, ““it is not analysis of political reality. It is therapy for the person making the statement.”

Who out there is trying to wean the voting public away from comfort food? I give David Brooks high marks for talking about the economic immorality of Red and Blue America which has caused so many problems since 1980. Not only have voters racked up high levels of personal debt, despite the rise in “populism,” too many voters shy away even now from taking on what Brooks calls “the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.” Brooks’s seems a lone voice calling for more maturity and resilience. Mr. Walker overlooks how crippling emotional nannyism is and offers no solutions for how to help people break free of it.