Obama's Populism Problem

Barack Obama is aloof. Barack Obama is cerebral. Barack Obama lacks Bill Clinton's gift for political empathy. Barack Obama is out of touch with the angry, frustrated mood of the country. If he hopes to rebound from the Democrats' midterm wipe out, Barack Obama will have to adopt a more populist tone.

If you've read any political journalism this week, you'll have come across variations of this analysis, and probably not for the first time. The idea that Obama should ditch his unflappable aura in exchange for a little populist fervor has been near-ubiquitous among the chatterati throughout his presidency: Back in June, Salon's Alex Pareene poked fun at the anger-unmanagement advice of pundits from Maureen Dowd to Joe Scarborough in a post entitled, "Why won't Obama just get even madder about this oil spill?"

The heavy GOP tilt of the white working class in the midterms has given this argument renewed currency. As my old TNR colleague (and friend) Noam Scheiber notes:

For months now, a variety of left-leaning pundits have warned Democrats to strike a more populist tone if they want to survive politically.... Looking over the reams of data that the midterms generated, is there any evidence that the kibitzers were right? The short answer is yes.

For what it's worth, I agree, though with a couple of major caveats where Obama himself is concerned. An obvious one is that the president is by disposition not particularly suited to populist appeals. (To anyone who's forgotten what can go wrong with such mismatches between message and messenger, I refer you to Al Gore's "People versus the Powerful" persona.)
But another concern, though more obvious still, tends to be overlooked or understated in these discussions: President Obama is a black man--and, as such, has unique cause to be wary of the adjective "angry."

Success in politics is often a question of counterbalanced narratives, real or apparent. Hillary Clinton's tough-as-nails presentation mediated the political consequences of being a female candidate for high office, and vice versa. (Likewise, I think it's no coincidence that a high proportion of the conservative insurgents who've lately rattled the GOP establishment--Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Nikki Haley, Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell--have been women.) Former generals such as Colin Powell and Wes Clark have had the latitude to be anti-interventionist, as they are simultaneously inoculated against both wimp and warmonger charges.

So, too, with Barack Obama: His composed, borderline uptight demeanor allayed white anxiety about his race; and, less self-evident but no less real, his being black saved him from the nerd purgatory of Adlai Stevensonism. Nor is this racial/temperamental balancing act a particularly novel one: think, again, of Colin Powell (prior to Obama, the most broadly popular black political figure in the country) or such breakthrough cultural figures as Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, and Nat King Cole.

Even when Obama has been at his cucumber-coolest--and has earned abuse from the left and center for it--figures on the right have aggressively tried to hang the "angry black man" label on him. A June editorial in The Washington Times (entitled, bluntly enough, "Angry Man Obama") cited his "tough guy" persona and "bullying undercurrent" and tied him to Spike Lee. A year ago, Rush Limbaugh described the school-bus beating of a white student by black students as typical of "Obama's America"; in the run-up to the midterms, Glenn Beck accused the president of "inciting people." The idea that Obama is driven by fury is prevalent enough on the right that Dinesh D'Souza could take it as a given in the title of his Amazon bestseller The Roots of Obama's Rage. Idiotic though it may be, this is not a narrative the president wants to fuel.

Appeals to populism and displays of anger are not, of course, the same thing. But they're not unrelated, either, particularly in the current political environment. Indeed, if anything, the mainstream Obama critiques along these lines have tended to emphasize personality over policy.

But there's a reason why Obama has, to a striking degree in contemporary politics, played up superego at the expense of id. And those (often including myself) who wish he'd show a little more fire should keep in mind just how combustible that advice could prove.