So today we got a glimpse of the new, populist Obama. He feels our pain. He will fight for us until his very last breath (even if he’s fighting to pass policies the public doesn’t like, apparently). He is going to get every dime of our money back from those evil banks on Wall Street (even though most have already paid back what they owe.)
The White House seems to think a pivot to populism will help the President politically. But it probably won’t. Here’s why: Obama isn’t a “man of the people.” Never has been. That isn’t the image he ran on during the campaign, and it isn’t why people voted for him. Even more to the point, it certainly wasn’t how he governed during his first year in office.
Obama ran as a thoughtful, cool-headed, competent intellectual who was going to bring both parties together to develop and implement solutions to America’s most serious problems.
But – and here’s the rub – after a year of bailing out Wall Street and car makers, passing a stimulus that didn’t produce any tangible results for Main Street (i.e. jobs), and focusing most of his energy in pushing a partisan health care bill through Congress using backroom deals with industries and individual Democratic Senators, huge swaths of the country have lost confidence in Obama.
They’ve lost confidence in his agenda, and they are no longer sold on the idea that he can deliver on his promise to produce bipartisan solutions to America’s problems.
So a change in Obama’s style is unlikely to suddenly alter public perceptions about the President or his agenda. Nor is new rhetoric likely to put him back “in touch” with the public after a year of becoming detached from them – something he admitted in his interview with George Stephanopoulos earlier this week.
One of the things that was most likable about Barack Obama during the campaign was that he seemed exceedingly comfortable in his own skin. He was the smooth Constitutional Law professor from an elite university who projected a sense of knowledge, competence, and analytic pragmatism married to the lofty, eloquent rhetoric of hope. Put differently, candidate Obama was above running a populist campaign – which is why he struggled so mightily against Hillary Clinton with blue collar folks who cling to their God and guns.
Politicians try to reinvent themselves all the time, and some find success. But it only works if there’s some credibility behind the shift – some truth in advertising, if you will. That’s why its’ hard to see the public buying into Obama’s impersonation of William Jennings Bryan. It’s simply not who he is.