Obama’s alternative to anger

A few years ago, I asked a tech-savvy friend what type of cell phone he had. It was the ultra-slim Motorola Razr, which I recognized instantly. “I’ve seen quite a few of those,” I said.

“Yeah, everybody’s got it,” he grimaced. “I gotta get something else.” For true aficionados of high-tech gadgets, there’s no greater sin than being seen as common.

Today, there’s a political equivalent to the Razr craze. Call it angry populism.

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In the days of William Jennings Bryan, populism meant challenging the power of the privileged on behalf of the working class, often with great passion. In the 1976 film “Network,” fictional TV commentator Howard Beale kicked that up a notch, beseeching his viewers to shout out their windows that they were “mad as hell” and “not going to take this anymore!”

Today, it’s chic for the chattering class to channel Beale’s rage, no matter what the circumstances.

First, CNBC’s Rick Santelli rallied a resentful crowd against President Obama’s mortgage relief plan — although the angry mob consisted of suits on the floor of the Mercantile Exchange, not struggling homeowners facing foreclosure. In a recent profile, conservative pundit Glenn Beck cited Beale as an inspiration for his on-air tirades, which target everything from environmentalism to teleprompters. Even billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — not known for his populist rhetoric — is inciting fare-conscious straphangers to tell state lawmakers they were mad as hell, too. It makes for great television.

To score easy political points, or jack up Nielsen ratings, fomenting public fury is like picking the low-hanging fruit. AIG executives who drive their company into the ground (and help drag down the nation’s financial system with it) get seven-figure bonuses. Quick, Congress — how about a 90 percent tax targeting a handful of rich punks? Bank CEOs come to Washington? Haul them before a congressional committee and take turns delivering verbal gut-punches. The automakers continue to lose money? The company brass is an easy target.

But while the political class takes the road more traveled, President Obama has gone a different direction. In explaining his bank rescue plan to a joint session of Congress, Obama noted: “[I]n a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job — our job — is to solve the problem.”

While clearly disgusted by the actions of AIG, Obama didn’t vent his frustration by pushing legislation of questionable constitutionality. Instead, he instructed his staff to think through ways to rectify the matter, while keeping his eye on the nation’s larger economic challenges. The Washington press corps cried political malpractice. “Why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage?” asked a CNN reporter.
“[B]ecause I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak,” Obama calmly replied.

Last week, the president met with leading U.S. bankers to discuss the financial crisis. His criticism was pointed, but constructive, not abusive. “Show some restraint,” he told them. “Show [Americans] you get that this is a crisis and everybody has to make sacrifices.” The bankers left the meeting without tar or feathers, but clear on the president’s priorities, and they offered their support for his plan.

This week, the president’s tough new plan to help the ailing auto industry  and save 400,000 American jobs along with it  caused General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner to step down. The easy answer? Blame the whole mess on the boss. Make sure testy taxpayers know where to point their fingers.

But the president was more intent on fixing the problem than assigning blame: “This is not meant as a condemnation of Mr. Wagoner, who has devoted his life to this company; rather, it’s a recognition that it will take a new vision and new direction to create the GM of the future.”

Obama’s unwillingness to play to the lowest common denominator is more than a matter of style. It’s a blueprint for governing.

His healthcare reform effort has given the insurance companies a seat at the table, even if — as Obama made clear throughout the campaign — they’d no longer be able to buy every chair. Business leaders are joining with union members to support the president’s economic program. And not a single camera has caught President Obama screaming into the lens.

Washington is left wanting. For the political elites, pseudo-populist rage is all the rage — and just like the Razr of old, it seems like everybody’s got it.

But most Americans, I think, want something else.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.