Last Thursday, President Obama dared Republicans to run against health care reform in this year’s elections. But by Saturday, the bravado was gone and Mr. Obama instead delivered a starkly populist, anti-business message as he campaigned in Massachusetts for embattled Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley.
The pivot appears to be part of a broader White House strategy to tap into swelling public anger over the economy, with the unemployment rate stuck near 10 percent while taxpayers remain on the hook for bailing out Wall Street.
But Democratic efforts to reclaim the populist mantle are hampered by the inherent challenge of being the party in power, whereas Republicans, who control neither the White House nor Congress, have largely been able to harness fury at big government.
That dynamic has led Mr. Obama to step up blame on the previous administration, arguing that eight years of the policies of George W. Bush — and what Mr. Obama said was that administration’s deference to “big banks,” “big insurance” and “big polluters” — take time to undo.
Populist appeals are nothing new in U.S. politics, having played a part in Democrats’ takeover of Congress is 2006 and in Mr. Obama’s own sweep to power in November 2008. Last summer, a tidal wave of popular anger hit the nation as the so-called “tea party” movement took off.
The trick for Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats in this year’s midterm elections is to ride the wave without getting crushed by it.
“When you’re the challenger, you can tap into populism because you can say, ‘I’m not that guy,’” said Sean Gibbons, a spokesman for the progressive think tank Third Way. “But when you’re the government, you have to be able to say, ‘I hear you, and here’s what I’m going to be able to do for you.’”
Indeed, Mr. Obama is framing his proposed tax on big banks, announced last week, as a Main Street-versus-Wall Street fight. He argues that those who don’t support the fee — designed to raise $90 billion over 10 years to help pay for the financial bailout — are siding with big business instead of the taxpayer.
“I understood this the minute I was sworn into office,” Mr. Obama told the crowd of Coakley supporters on Sunday, “there were going to be some who stood on the sidelines, who were protectors of the big banks, and protectors of the big insurance companies, protectors of the big drug companies, who would say, you know what, we can take advantage of this crisis — because it’s going to be so bad, even though we helped initiate these policies, there’s going to be a sleight of hand here because we’re going to let Democrats take responsibility.”
Early in his administration, Mr. Obama reached out to leading business groups, and during the spring he hosted business leaders at the White House to talk about ways they could join forces on pressing issues, such as health care reform. At one point in May, he thought he had reached an accord with health care and pharmaceutical companies that would smooth the way for a health care bill to pass Congress.
But relations have cooled, business groups have lobbied against major parts of Mr. Obama’s plans, and the president and congressional Democrats have taken to hammering away at “big insurance” as Democrats narrowed their health care overhaul to reforming the insurance industry.
Some question whether the anti-business rhetoric will pay off. Republican strategist John Feehery said Mr. Obama would be better served by moving toward the center.
“The president still has three years before he has to run again. The tax on banks, the Justice Department investigating [predatory] lending — all that stuff does is make it harder for the banks to lend money, which at the end of the day will slow the economic recovery,” said Mr. Feehery of the Feehery Group. “The more populist the president is, the less effective his policies will be.”
Still, Mr. Obama’s new rhetoric is likely to be a preview of the Democrats’ strategy going into the midterm elections, when every member of the House must run and retirements have left key seats in the Senate up for grabs. Many analysts, citing increased public opposition to the health care bill and lower approval ratings for Mr. Obama, say Republicans are poised to cut into the Democrats’ majorities in both chambers.
Asked about the president’s new populist tone, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama’s concern for everyday Americans “goes back much further than the election year,” and could be seen throughout 2007 and 2008.
“There are people in this country that were struggling with jobs and the economy long before there was a financial crisis on Wall Street,” he said, “and they wanted to know if Washington was going to help them or continue to work to help the special interests. So I think he spent a lot of time talking about it then, and he’ll spend a lot of time talking about it now.”
But for Mr. Obama’s strategy to work, voters will have to accept his charge that the Bush administration is still to blame.
Mr. Feehery said the recent Republican wins for the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey and the stunning late surge for a little-known Republican candidate, Scott Brown, in the Senate race in Massachusetts on Tuesday with Mrs. Coakley show that “obviously, people have decided this is no longer George Bush’s fault.”
But the Third Way’s Mr. Gibbons said that attacking Mr. Obama’s predecessor for the current troubles remains a potent strategy.
“Frankly, that’s a song I would have on repeat until people get sick of hearing it, because that’s the song. The reality is the White House did not create these conditions. They’re trying to fix them,” he said.