The evolution of a populist

How Republican obstructionism and an organic Wall Street protest movement created a new Obama

Published December 7, 2011 12:46PM (EST)

President Obama speaking in Osawatomie, Kansas, on Tuesday.     (AP/Charlie Riedel)
President Obama speaking in Osawatomie, Kansas, on Tuesday. (AP/Charlie Riedel)

President Obama's Tuesday speech in Osawatomie, Kan., essentially served as the kickoff of his reelection effort. He may make a more formal declaration over the next few months, but the hour-long address, which was designed to evoke the Bull Moose spirit of Teddy Roosevelt and featured a comprehensive defense of government's role in combating income inequality and fortifying the middle class, provided a preview of the themes Obama will emphasize between now and next November.

His embrace of defiant, populist messaging also represents a final, definitive break with the bipartisan-friendly political style that defined Obama's rise to power and the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency.

To understand this evolution, it may be useful to first look back at the most famous passage of the speech that made Obama a star, his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.  The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

At the time, this made for the perfect marriage of message and messenger. In the wake of the 2000 election and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the country seemed hopelessly divided, then out of nowhere came this rhetorically gifted fresh face with an inspiring life story.  Across the spectrum, the general instinct of those who saw Obama was to like him. So when the antiwar Democratic base found out that he'd spoken out against the war before it had started, they had just the credible outsider they needed to oppose Hillary Clinton for the 2008 nomination. And when Obama won that contest, he faced a general election audience that was beyond tired of George W. Bush and more than ready to give the Democrats a chance to run the White House; the cooperative, can-do spirit of Obama's rhetoric was all the reassurance they needed.

But that's when Obama's bipartisan posturing lost its power with the public. More than anything, swing voters judge presidents on the state of the economy, so starting on Jan. 20, 2009, calls for unity and common purpose were only going to help Obama if they inspired Republicans in Capitol Hill to work cooperatively with him and enact an economy-spurring agenda. And the Obama-era Republican Party -- which is composed of true-believers who are convinced he's seeking to impose a radical, Marxist agenda and one-time pragmatists who now live in fear of being seen by the true-believers as enablers of that radical, Marxist agenda -- had no interest in doing that.

The best Obama could muster was three GOP votes (out of a combined 218 House and Senate Republicans) for an insufficient stimulus that, thanks to unyielding attacks from Republicans over its $787 billion price-tag, made unifying Democrats to push for a badly needed follow-up package impossible. Otherwise, the signature achievements of Obama's first two years in office came through politically draining party-line votes, and with economic anxiety still soaring and Democrats sitting on dozens of marginal House and Senate seats, the 2010 midterms produced an epic GOP landslide.

Still, it wasn't until the end of this summer, when months of outreach to the new House majority ended with John Boehner walking away from a "grand bargain" as a debt ceiling default loomed, that Obama concluded that leaders of today's GOP are either incapable (because of their base's demands) or unwilling (because they share those demands) to work with him. This led to a second realization: If he wasn't going to be able to win back swing voters by enacting economy-boosting legislation, Obama's reelection chances would depend on making it clear to those swing voters why he couldn't get anything done. It was in this spirit that he presented a jobs plan filled with broadly popular ideas to Congress in a prime-time speech in September, daring Republicans to say no to a package that independent economists generally agreed would measurably improve the economy -- which, of course, they did.

Whether the jobs bill's piece-by-piece death in the Senate registered at all with casual voters, though, is an open question. Which is why Obama probably owes a debt of gratitude to an organic movement that was gaining steam just as his jobs plan was flaming out: Occupy Wall Street. The protests in lower Manhattan and, later, in cities across the country certainly gave conservatives plenty of ammunition for their culture war politics, but they also succeeded where Democrats had utterly failed: disrupting the political and media world's focus on deficits and government spending and forcing income inequality onto the agenda and into the public's consciousness.

This gives Obama an opportunity to connect Republican obstructionism to the basic theme of the OWS movement, that the working class and middle class are taking it on the chin so that an already-pampered super-affluent elite can enjoy an even bigger slice of a shrinking pie. His push for an extension of payroll tax cuts that would benefit tens of millions of middle-income families exemplifies this opening. The tax cut means an extra $1,000 a year for the average middle-class family -- $1,500 if Obama gets his way and the rate is lowered further. To finance an extension for 2012, Democrats are asking for a surcharge on incomes over $1 million -- and Republicans, with the exception of Maine Sen. Susan Collins, are all balking.

You can expect Obama to try to force congressional Republicans into as many of these revealing moments as possible over the next year. He said as much in his big speech in Kansas on Tuesday, which included a passage with a familiar structure but a very different message from the one he delivered in Boston seven years ago:

Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia.  After all that's happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess.  In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years.  And their philosophy is simple:  We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.

I am here to say they are wrong.  I'm here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we're greater together than we are on our own.  I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren't Democratic values or Republican values.  These aren't 1 percent values or 99 percent values.  They're American values.  And we have to reclaim them.

In a way, Obama is still playing uniter-in-chief. But instead of trying to coax Capitol Hill Republicans into compromise, he's now more interested in rallying the 99 percent against them.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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