The Return of Barack Obama, Economic Populist

Remember when President Obama was considered an economic populist as he traipsed across the country in 2008, singing denunciations of George W. Bush's policies?

It seems we're about to see more of Obama's populist side in the next two years, as the White House promises a renewed fight over the tax code and as the president approaches the topic of deficit reduction with some decidedly populist rhetoric.

With his base disquieted by the compromise over extending Bush's tax cuts, Obama returned to material he used in stump speeches in 2008 at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

"I think middle-class folks would confirm what the stats say, which is that they have not seen a real increase in their incomes in a decade, while their costs have skyrocketed. That's just a fact," Obama said, when asked to defend his tax-cut deal to skeptical middle-class Americans.

"What is also a fact is that people in the top one percent, people in the top one tenth of one percent, or one one-hundredth of one percent ... have a larger share of income and wealth than at any time since the 1920s. Those are just facts. That's not some feeling on the part of Democrats," the president continued.

He used the same statistics in multiple 2008 speeches attacking Bush's economic policies, painting John McCain as a Bush clone who wouldn't look out for the middle class.

All signs point to more populist rhetoric over the next two years.

Obama has already said he thinks he can win the tax debate next time around. Given a two-year extension, the Bush tax cuts are set to return as a discussion topic just in time for the next presidential election, when attack-rhetoric and general madness will rise once again toward a frightening pitch.

Wednesday, the president foreshadowed more working-class economic arguments as he confronts Republicans over deficit-reduction next year.

And conditions are favorable for a deficit fight. Republicans were swept into office on a wave of deficit fears, and Obama seems eager to meet the GOP squarely on this field, having just argued that "we cannot afford" tax cuts for the rich at present. Meanwhile, the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission recently called national attention back to the unpleasant menu of deficit-reduction measures, while deficit-hawk-extraordinaire Paul Ryan of Wisconsin will become chairman of the House Budget Committee in a week and a half.

"I guarantee you: As soon as the new Congress is sworn in, we're going to have to start having a conversation about how to balance our budget or at least get to a point where it's sustainable," Obama said on Wednesday.

"That requires us to be honest about paying for the things that we think are important," the president said, citing veterans' health benefits and education. "If we say that education is going to be he single most important determinant of our children's success ... we can't have schools that are laying off teachers and going to four days a week."

"We are going to have to compare the option of maintaining the tax cuts for the wealthiest percent vs. spending on these things that we think are important," Obama said.

Right now, Obama sounds as if he genuinely wants to have this fight, as if he's champing at the bit to exploit a political weakness in the GOP, a fight that will begin soon as Congress and the White House begin haggling over appropriations in the spring.