Obama’s embrace of soft populism was subtle, incremental, at times nearly imperceptible. But it set him up perfectly for the financial crisis lurking just around the corner. “Unlike traditional politicians, he didn’t simply do an overnight leftward correction,” says an old Bill Clinton hand. “He didn’t switch ‘Change we can believe in’ to ‘Reformer with results’ or ‘Let’s take a match to Wall Street.’ He didn’t bark out his stage directions—‘Message: I care.’ He didn’t take Lamar Alexander’s red-and-black flannel shirt out of the closet. Gradually, like he was slowly twisting a rheostat, he got to where he needed to be. And when the markets fell, he didn’t have to run after them and make a basket catch. It seemed inevitable and obvious when they collapsed into his lap.”
That collapse, along with McCain’s long history of support for deregulation of the financial industry, had a number of significant effects. To start, it handed Obama a ready-made economic narrative—or, rather, it added a powerful extension to the catchall argument he was already making against McCain as a clone of Bush. “It’s a dead-simple narrative,” says Robert Reich, the former Labor secretary who is now an informal Obama adviser. “It says, ‘This disaster is the result of eight years of failed policies, especially deregulation, and McCain was in favor of most of them.’ That’s it. ‘Look where we were. Look where we are. And who’s responsible?’ ”
The crisis atmosphere also created a setting in which Obama’s intellect, self-possession, and unflappability would be seen by voters as such, and not as aloofness or arrogance or bloodlessness, as they sometimes have been in other circumstances. McCain, it’s worth noting, was more stridently populist in tone in his initial reaction to the crisis, with his declamations against Wall Street greed. But Obama’s soft-populist posture—with no flashes of anger but rather expressions of indignation—played better with the electorate. “People are angry and scared,” says an Obama confidant. “What they want is someone cool and steady and smart who understands what’s going on, and that’s what they’ve seen in Barack. But what they’ve seen in McCain is hot and erratic and maybe not all that smart.”
The soft-populist approach has served Obama effectively, too, on topics besides the financial crisis. You could see it in action at the last debate when he took on the question of health care: starting with a firm declaration that coverage “should be a right for every American,” proceeding through a professorial disquisition on how his plan would work, and ending with a shot at “insurance companies that are cheating their customers.” You could see it as well in Indianapolis, when Obama clinically debunked McCain’s claims about his desire to raise taxes willy-nilly and then called for a show of hands of those in the audience earning less than $250,000 a year (who would thus be unaffected by his tax hikes). “That seems to be almost everyone,” he said with a chuckle.
But Obama seems to realize that, in order to close the sale, he needs to take his soft populism one step further, past the us-versus-them-ism inherent in the creed. In Indianapolis, he sought to infuse his speech with a unifying optimism—so much so that it sounded a bit like a closing argument in the making. “We will all need to sacrifice, and we will all need to pull our weight because now more than ever, we are all in this together,” Obama said. “What this crisis has taught us is that at the end of the day, there is no real separation between Main Street and Wall Street. There is only the road we’re traveling on as Americans, and we will rise or fall on that journey as one nation, as one people.”
Sunny, hopeful, optimistic populism isn’t as paradoxical as it might seem. It was the touchstone, in different ways, of both Clinton and Ronald Reagan. And there is reason to think it could carry Obama to a victory even more convincing than either of them achieved in the elections that put them in the Oval Office. In battleground state after battleground state Obama can point to polls that show him pulling away. The prospect of a Democratic landslide, which seemed remote if not impossible just a few weeks ago, now seems more than plausible.
I know, I know, don’t get carried away. A month is a lifetime in politics. The already ferocious Republican assault on Obama on matters of character, patriotism, and all-purpose otherness is bound to get more mind-bogglingly, stomach-turningly brutal. The old verity that economics trumps culture when the economy is bad is bound to be sorely tested. Obama may have finally stolen that page from the Clinton economic blueprint, but he will never have Clinton’s cultural inoculation—his Bubbahood—against certain kinds of attacks to fall back on. On the other hand, the specter of another Great Depression may keep the electorate focused on what really matters. Certainly it did back in 1932. “When times are good, people say they want someone like them to be president, but when times are bad, they want someone who can solve the problems, no matter how unlike them he is,” says the Obama confidant. “FDR was hardly a fucking man of the people, you know?”