Can Obama Be a Nerd Populist?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at East Room of the White House October 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke about the $447 billion jobs bill he has sent to Congress.
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at East Room of the White House October 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke about the $447 billion jobs bill he has sent to Congress. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

At his press conference yesterday, President Obama said something unusual. In the course of a fiery (for him) denunciation of Republicans in Congress, he repeatedly appealed to the authority of independent experts. He declared that his jobs plan would increase employment. “This is not just my belief. This is what independent economists have said.” He appealed to the authority of “independent” economists or experts eight times in all. His rousing challenge was to … ask macroeconomic forecasters to compare his plan against the Republican plan by how they would impact growth. It is fair to say William Jennings Bryan never tried this.

Is it possible to conduct an effective populist politics that is also self-consciously technocratic? This has long been a dilemma of the Democratic Party, but its horns have sharpened since Obama adopted his current campaign to lacerate Congress for its inaction. Al Gore attempted to navigate this divide during his 2000 campaign. His theme, “The people versus the powerful,” was classic populism. Yet what Gore was actually running to do was a continuation of the Clinton program centered around using budget surpluses to pay down the national debt. This was the opposite of populism, except in contrast to George W. Bush’s plan to dissipate the surplus through tax cuts that primarily benefited the rich. Gore was employing populist themes to defend centrist policies against plutocratic ones.

The problem for Gore was that the lingo itself alarmed elites — upscale voters, national journalists, campaign donors, and the like. That is the same problem Obama faces. The rich have come to regard him with terror and loathing. Ezra Klein reports on the latest outcropping of the angry rich:

At a medical-innovation conference in Cleveland this week, I heard chief executive officers complain about being treated like “criminals,” about profit being regarded as intrinsically suspicious, about the president saying unkind things about oil companies, about exemplars of hard work and success being viewed as greedy rather than productive.

Mitt Romney is rapidly consolidating the alarmed, put-upon rich behind his campaign:

Mr. Romney has also picked up the support of two Republican financiers who once supported President Obama: Daniel S. Loeb and Clifford S. Asness, both outspoken hedge fund managers who in recent months have sharply criticized the president and his fiscal or regulatory policies.

“Mitt Romney grasps how a free economy works, and doesn’t think our current problems come from job-killing A.T.M.’s and evil rich people,” Mr. Asness wrote Thursday in an e-mail. “Nor does he think the solution is more stimulus, regulation and class warfare.”

In reality, the notion that the economy needs more stimulus is indeed shared by most economists:

While economic forecasts are not definitive, in that they are predictions, Macroeconomic Advisers, a St. Louis-based firm that the Federal Reserve often uses, has projected that the Obama jobs plan could increase economic growth by 1.25 percentage points and add 1.3 million jobs in 2012. Moody’s Analytics, another firm, has estimated it would add two percentage points and up to 1.9 million jobs.

Joel Prakken, chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers, said Republicans had “reasonable ideas” but not ones that could be measured by the firm’s forecasting model. He said he believed the proposals “would have little immediate effect relative to a plan that stimulates aggregate demand” — that is, a plan like Mr. Obama’s, with tax cuts and spending programs.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, similarly said the Republican proposals “are generally good longer-term economic policy, but they won’t mean much for the economy and job market in the next year.”

Populist though Obama’s lingo may be, he has positioned himself clearly on the side of the economics establishment. That is highly unusual. Populists, by and large, disdain received wisdom from economists and other experts.

Here is a window into the view of a classic liberal populist that offers a hint of the contradiction before Obama. In his New York Times column, Paul Krugman suggested that the Occupy Wall Street movement might be usefully complemented by details supplied by “policy intellectuals and politicians.” The liberal blogger Yves Smith shot back, in a perfect expression of classic populism, "Aargh. What about 'The elites in America are corrupt' don’t you understand?"

Krugman was implying that experts might do a better job than street demonstrators of formulating a policy agenda. That is precisely the assumption Smith rejected, and which Obama has embraced. Obama is attempting to exploit a cleavage between intellectual elites and financial elites. The trouble is that those most receptive to populism tend to view all elites as the same.