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.
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.
There is precedent for Obama to handle this challenge effectively. Patrician Franklin Roosevelt faced a similar dilemma and managed it successfully: the more socially oriented "Second New Deal" at the end of his first term was an effort, in part, to co-opt the populist threat. But FDR was also helped greatly by the fact that his greatest populist antagonist, Louisiana's Huey Long, was assassinated in 1935 — before FDR faced re-election.
Obama has a long road ahead of him, with many challenges to come. This is just another, but it is a key one. Whether our anything-but-populist president can handle the current populist fervor may well determine if he can ultimately claim success at his job. And, not coincidentally, get re-elected to it.
To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/starkravings. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, Ronald Reagan was said to have stood up against a Democrat-controlled Congress whereas it should have read a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. The correction has been made above.