Obama turns to populism to boost agenda

President Obama is once again turning to populism to reinvigorate what has been a lackluster second term.

The move was signaled by a lengthy speech by the president last week focused on income inequality that touched on raising the minimum wage and providing universal pre-K education, two issues popular with Obama’s base.

In the coming days, the White House is expected to double down by tackling college affordability — specifically, extending low-interest rates on federally backed student loans.

The populism counterpunch is one the White House has delivered several times with Obama on the ropes. White House aides and Democratic strategists said it helped catapult him to a second term last year. 

The messaging tack also dovetails with the healthcare offensive the White House is now pushing, which is meant to underline the idea that ObamaCare is providing health insurance to people in need of it.

The White House believes the push could help Obama and his party ahead of next year’s elections. They see themes of economic equality, encapsulated by issues like the minimum wage, as midterm winners.

“I think the president is certainly speaking to a moment,” said one former senior administration official, who pointed to healthcare and even the recent fast-food strikes, where workers are calling for a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour in cities across the country.

“I think it’s a theme they’re coming back to because it’s perhaps the message that worked best for them,” the official said. “At the end of the day, it’s a message that appealed to people in 2008 and then again in 2012.”

In the lead-up to his reelection, Obama portrayed himself as a warrior for the middle class, most notably using a pivotal 2011 speech in Kansas and a 2012 State of the Union address to issue a call for economic equality, or what he called “responsibility from everybody.”

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fare share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address. 

That message played well with core groups in Obama’s base, including Hispanics and African-American voters, and young people.

Reiterating that messaging strategy is a “smart play,” another former senior administration official said.

“As soon as the problem is under control, they are pivoting back to the group that got them elected, and it’s a way of framing the debates we’re having,” the second former official said.  

The White House also feels good about touting economic issues following several good reports last week on the economy and jobs.

While the economic comeback is slow, it is rolling in the right direction, with the unemployment rate dropping to 7 percent, a five-year low.

Republicans say the White House is changing the subject to distract from its problems, particularly on healthcare.

“This president is desperately trying to pivot because he’s losing support from nearly every segment of American voters between ObamaCare, his foreign policy and general government overreach under his watch, “ said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee. “While his so-called populist messaging worked during the campaign, Americans have become wise to Obama’s rhetoric that doesn’t end with results.”

Some White House allies also wonder aloud whether the strategy will work this time around for the president.

“He’s definitely trying to get the message about his priorities back on track after the ObamaCare kerfuffle because I’m assuming his polling is saying revert back to populism and get the message back on track,” one Democratic operative said.

“But I think the real issue is, what can he accomplish?” added the operative, who pointed to the healthcare reform website as undermining the president’s credibility.

“His credibility is largely shot for many reasons, the most recent one being the website,” the operative said. “So when he tries to strike a populist tone and talk about issues like college affordability, does anyone believe him and does anyone care?”

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who served as a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) until late 2010, said that the White House strategy is “less about appeasing” the Democratic base. Instead, he said, the White House is tapping into an anxious public, fed up with Washington and still suffering from the economic crisis.


“To pretend that everything is fine is foolish,” Manley said. “And I think the administration is trying to tap into some of that anxiety as they try to frame the debate for the rest of the president’s term.”