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'Obama the populist' doesn't ring true

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • Since the loss in Massachusetts, Obama has used populist themes
  • David Frum: New direction bound to fail since Obama ran for president as unifier
  • He says Obama hasn't run the government as a populist would
  • He says presidents have to be consistent on their key message to voters

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he was special assistant to President George W. Bush in 2001-2. He is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again" and the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- As President Obama acknowledges, his administration hit a buzz saw in Massachusetts last week.

The president will respond as he always does to emergencies: with a speech. In this case, it's his State of the Union address. The Obama team always assumes the best remedy for any Obama difficulty is more Obama.

But what to say in that speech?

The Obama team has been experimenting with a new theme -- a sharp populist turn, attacking bankers and lobbyists. Here's the president speaking in Elyria, Ohio, on January 22:

"I can promise you, there will be more fights in the days ahead. We're having one of them right now -- because I want to charge Wall Street a modest fee to repay taxpayers in full for saving their skin in a time of need. You can rest assured, we're going to get that money -- your money -- back, each and every dime."

In one short speech, the president promised or threatened a "fight" 15 times.

Will that trope continue into Wednesday's State of the Union? If so, it would be a big mistake. It may win the president an immediate bounce in the polls by exciting downcast liberals and progressives. But that bounce will prove limited and short-lived, and it will come at the expense of more trouble not very far down the road.

Here's why:

1. The new trope is not true to the president's own personality.

Barack Obama is a conciliator, not a fighter. He's cool and cerebral, not hot and pugnacious. He can remove his necktie and deliver his Elyria speech clad only in his Burberry suit and crisply pressed shirt; he can thicken his accent and drop his "g"s. But he remains who he is.

Liberals come in three main styles: fiery and populist such as Tom Harkin and Jesse Jackson; gentle and compassionate such as Eleanor Roosevelt or Hubert Humphrey: or rational and technocratic, such as Jimmy Carter or John Lindsay. Obama definitely belongs to the technocratic camp. Listen to him talk about health care:

"When health care costs grow at the rate they have, it puts greater pressure on programs like Medicare and Medicaid. If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined. Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close."

Compare that to this, Harry Truman speaking on the same subject in 1948:

"I wanted an insurance program that would work, so that a fellow would have a little money saved up, when it came time to pay medical and hospital bills, and the doctor and the hospital would get paid promptly. But the Republicans are against that. They say that's socialized medicine. Well, it isn't. That's just good common sense, and some of these days we are going to get it, because the Democrats are going back in power, and we are going to see that we get it."

Obama sees the problems of ordinary people from the top down, not the inside out. He is a conciliator, not a fighter. He is a man of thought and deliberation, not of confrontation and militancy. Conciliation and deliberation are virtues, by the way. So why pretend otherwise?

2. The new trope is not true to the record of the Obama administration.

This administration has taken a series of considered steps to restore the banking sector to profitability. It opted against nationalizing the busted banks. Instead, the administration supported the Federal Reserve as lending rates to banks were pushed to zero. Banks unsurprisingly were soon earning again. Those profits were not a bug. They were a feature.

Nor was the health care plan a populist upheaval. The Senate version that has become the de facto administration plan created winners and losers all right. But the losers were not giant corporations and the super-rich. The losers were seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage (one of the main targets of deficit-reducing cutbacks), people who need to buy costly medical devices (to be taxed) and those enrolled in generous health insurance plans (also to be taxed).

The winners were not the poorest of the poor: they get what they have always got, Medicaid. The winners are people currently uninsured and especially recent immigrants. (One in four of the uninsured is foreign-born.)

In other words, the Obama plan does not take from the rich to give to the poor. It taxes the upper-middle class for the benefit of the lower-middle class. That's a transaction that real populists have historically tended to oppose, not champion.

3. The new trope is not true to Obama's political coalition.

In 2008, Obama won thanks to a coalition of the top and bottom. He won among the poor and minorities, and he won among the well-educated and those earning more than $200,000 a year. He did least well among noncollege, nonpoor whites.

Some of these are the people whom Obama famously described as "bitter" clingers:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

To understand this story, you need to remember not only what Obama said, but also where he said it: In the Pacific Heights mansion of billionaires Ann and Gordon Getty.

Obama did not lead pitchfork-wielding peasants to Washington. Nor did he appoint a cabinet of Shoeless Joes. Obama leads one of the most highly credentialed administrations in American history. Obama may promise the people of Elyria to fight for "you." However, it's Tim Geithner and Larry Summers and Valerie Jarrett and other highly capable and successful people who constitute his "us."

4. The new trope is not true to Obama's original promise to the electorate.

Politicians make lots of promises to lots of constituencies, but usually you can reduce their message to one big, overarching promise. That is especially true for winning presidents, who must speak extra-simply because the country is so big and the media is so fragmented. For example:

Nixon: I'll end the war in Vietnam with honor.

Carter: I'll never lie to you.

Reagan: I'll restore America's greatness.

Clinton: I'll fix the economy.

And Obama? Unlike Clinton in 1992, he did not offer a highly specific policy manifesto, no equivalent of "Putting People First." Unlike Ronald Reagan in 1980, he did not promise a sharp ideological change of direction, no equivalent of "government is the problem, not the solution." He campaigned on a promise of unity, of transcendence. Think of Obama's two most famous and successful speeches, to the Democratic convention in 2004 and on race in 2008.

"We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."


"Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity."

Politicians may imagine that they have scope to break these kinds of nonspecific commitments. They are wrong. They go to the essence of the man the people think they have trusted.

If you are a unifier, you have to do unity -- and do it all the time.

You cannot detour into attack mode for temporary advantage and then return again to the unity message when it suits you. If you do, you make yourself exactly the thing you identified as the chief evil of the society: a divider, a hunter of scapegoats. It would be as if Carter were caught in a lie, as if Reagan mocked the flag, as if Clinton presided over a plunge into recession.

Candidate Obama denounced "small" politics. He cannot now renege. If he's not generous, and inclusive, he's nothing at all. If he resorts to divisive, scapegoating gimmicks because he's down in the polls, he'll have betrayed the deepest promise he made to the country.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.