Everyone has been buzzing over the last couple of weeks about President Obama’s turn to a more populist progressive positioning. I have done about half a dozen media interviews about it in the last few weeks, with reporters wanting to get the
September 24, 2011

Everyone has been buzzing over the last couple of weeks about President Obama’s turn to a more populist progressive positioning. I have done about half a dozen media interviews about it in the last few weeks, with reporters wanting to get the reactions of known lefties like me to the new turn of events. The main questions tend to be whether it is “genuine,” will it help Obama (both with progressives and in general with voters), will it be the long-term trend, and why is it happening? I will talk about each of these in order.

  • Is it genuine? I simply do not care. In case folks had not realized it, our President is a politician. And personally, I stopped caring about most politicians’ inner motivations and beliefs and psychology quite a while ago. I think too many progressives have spent far too much time and energy debating with each other whether Obama is a good guy or not, whether he is doing his best or is a sellout, etc., etc., ad nauseam. What matters is what he does, and how he reacts to the political dynamics swirling around him. Whatever his personal opinions and values are, he will react to the situation in the way he thinks will most benefit him politically, and the country in general. Obama is moving the progressive direction because he understands it to be in his, and the country’s, self-interest- and I welcome him to the dance.

  • Will it help? Absolutely. There is a reason Democratic politicians tend to become more populist closer to elections. It’s because — contrary to Third Way arguments — economic populism does work. And the harder the times, the better off Democrats do with it. What all the establishment conventional wisdom groupies in D.C. keep forgetting is that on most economic issues, Democrats don’t have to choose between their base and swing voters (who are mostly working class folks). Swing voters and base voters are in agreement about not cutting Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits; they oppose raising the retirement age; they support more taxes on millionaires and billionaires, and want to close tax loopholes for big business; they think the big banks should have higher taxes and tougher regulations; they support spending more for public education, student loans, Head Start, and rebuilding our infrastructure; they want to invest in green jobs and rebuilding our manufacturing sector. In all these areas and more, progressives and swing voters are strongly in agreement.

    Here’s the other important thing about firing up the progressive base, though: Democrats who argue that the base has nowhere else to go don’t understand one of the most fundamental laws of politics, which is that you can’t win over swing voters without a fired up base to carry your message. Who do the ignore-the-base geniuses think is going to defend the President in office water cooler and lunch conversations, or in neighborhood barbecues? Who will knock on doors and make phone calls? Who will write the letters to the editor, and send the Facebook messages to their friends? You can’t win elections without swing voters, but you can’t win without the passion of activists and political junkies either. And this newly feisty Obama message is going to fire up the troops again.

    Whether all this will be enough given the dreadful economy is tough to say, but the Obama strategy he is using today is the best shot he has.

  • Will it be a long-term trend, and why Obama is moving in our direction can mostly be answered with the same answer: it is up to the progressive movement. While there are multiple reasons Obama is trending progressives’ way rhetorically, including the calendar I alluded to above, one thing is clear to me, which is that progressives have created a center of gravity which is pulling Obama our way. Progressive organizers, bloggers, and activists have sent thousands of people to town halls demanding no cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; Bloggers, MoveOn.org, and Rebuild the Dream have built huge online momentum and media attention toward taxing millionaires; labor with all their allies have created a groundswell for Obama and members of Congress to do something about jobs; the New Bottom Line campaign and their allies in progressive politics have stirred anger at the big banks and focused media attention on underwater homeowners. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have drawn a bright line on all these issues on Capitol Hill, creating a consistent drumbeat on behalf of progressive issues, and an inside-outside strategy that is impossible to ignore.

    In this kind of environment, with this kind of progressive gravitational pull being built, Obama has responded. He is sounding more like a progressive populist than he has since, oh, I’d say October of 2008. And if we in the progressive movement keep creating the political environment on these kinds of populist issues, Obama- being a politician- will naturally keep drawn our way. We need to keep creating the space to get Obama to move our way, in part by helping push for the Buffett tax and more jobs legislation, but in part by continuing to push for things that we know will be good both in terms of policy and in terms of the President’s politics by focusing on the things the administration can do without going through Congress: regulatory pressure on the big banks to do more on mortgage writedowns; Justice department action going after Wall Street fraud; EPA action going after the worst polluters, and Labor Department action to go after the worst OSHA violators; executive orders that promote good wages and benefits in federal government contracting and procurement.

Progressives have created a new vitality in our organizing and messaging, and it is drawing Obama our way. Listen to him talk the other day:

“Now, the Republicans, when I talked about this earlier in the week, they said, well, this is class warfare. You know what, if asking a billionaire to pay their fair share of taxes, to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare, then you know what, I’m a warrior for the middle class. (Applause.) I’m happy to fight for the middle class. I’m happy to fight for working people. (Applause.) Because the only warfare I've seen is the battle against the middle class over the last 10, 15 years.”

That sounds like something a wild man like me would have said. Obama’s moving our direction, and it is the best thing he can do for himself politically. If we keep organizing and agitating and creating a politically appealing space on the left, if we keep adding to the gravitational pull of the American Dream Movement, Obama will keep coming our way. We have to seize this moment.

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