Obama’s New Democratic Populism

There is something new going on in the Democratic Party.  The President’s top domestic priority, health reform, ran into determined and increasingly effective Republican obstruction and misinformation.  Opinion polls registered growing public opposition built on the foundation of Republican attacks.  The Democrats lost a special election in a normally safe seat.  Democratic Senators and Representatives panicked and loudly expressed their desire to seek compromise with Republicans and/or abandon the issue.  How did the President react?

He could have moved rightward, adopting a Republican issue (tort reform?) as his own and intentionally antagonizing Democratic liberals.  Bill Clinton was notorious among Democrats for maneuvers like this (remember “triangulation”?).  He could have fired his cabinet, making a clean break with an unsuccessful team.  That move helped seal Jimmy Carter’s fate in 1980.  Instead, Obama stuck to his original plan, carefully designed from the beginning to reach for major policy goals while maximizing interest group support.  He tweaked his position to add popular cosmetic elements (insurance company rate review) and eliminate unpopular ones (cornhusker kickback).  Then he stage-managed a confrontation with Republicans to emphasize the shallowness of their appeals to bipartisanship.  When he calls the question, chances are he’ll have the votes.

Two things are striking about this response: its confidence and its populism.  Barack Obama trained as a community organizer in Chicago.  He spent years training community leaders to use the power of populist confrontations to win concrete, lasting policy achievements.  That’s how community organizations are built.  He also knows that most of his supporters are motivated by symbolic issues with an easily identifiable villain (like ending the anti-trust exemption for insurance companies), so he should campaign on those instead of on the policy elements that will actually have the biggest impact (exchanges and subsidies).  Furthermore, he apparently understands that Independents want to see an open process with bipartisan intent, but, again, the policy specifics don’t matter as much to them.  So the recipe for success is clear: build an interest group coalition around concrete, winnable issues, emphasize populist components in the campaign, make highly visible overtures to Republicans, and then set up confrontations with entrenched opponents on your terms.

As a candidate Barack Obama promised to change politics.  Few thought this was what he meant, but as a former organizer myself this is definitely change I can believe in.

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