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As demonstrators took to the streets across the country to decry the excesses of Wall Street, a reporter asked President Barack Obama what he thought of them. Obama allowed that he understood their anger and even offered a bit of carefully modulated praise. “The protesters are giving voice to a broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” the President said at an Oct. 6 press conference.
His kind words for Occupy Wall Street were a sign of the four-week-old movement’s success. It has been the subject of much press coverage. Kanye West, Michael Moore, and other celebs have added caché, dropping by Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, where several hundred protesters have pitched their tents. Demonstrations are springing up in other cities. Overall, some 50,000 people have participated in OWS events.
The President’s nod to the protesters dovetails with the increasingly populist message emanating from the White House as Obama runs for a second term. Even before the protests started on Sept. 17, the Administration had begun to move in that direction with a $447 billion job creation plan, to be funded primarily by a tax on the rich. While Republicans dubbed the idea “class warfare,” some of the President’s backers believe the protests suggest the proposal was well-timed. “It very much helps him to have outside forces in society that are pushing for change,” says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. The President, though, must tread carefully. While polls indicate most Americans generally favor higher taxes for the wealthy, populist campaigns that vilify rich people rarely have broad appeal.
The term itself would seem to fit the moment: A vibrant populist movement emerged in the late 19th century, made up of farmers and workers united by their distrust of Wall Street. These original populists helped bring about lasting changes, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. They were less successful at getting candidates, including the legendary William Jennings Bryan, elected to national office. “As a political movement, they kind of came and went,” says Beverly Gage, associate professor of history at Yale and author of The Day Wall Street Exploded, a book about a 1920 bombing of the Financial District.
Recent Democratic Presidential candidates who have tried to win votes by pitting one class of Americans against another haven’t found it to be an especially effective tool. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 in part by promising to tax the wealthy, but won a second term after moving to the right and embracing welfare reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement, both opposed by liberals. Al Gore’s populist campaign slogan, “The People vs. The Power,” did not give him much traction against very nonpopulist George W. Bush. In 2008, John Edwards ended up far behind his rivals for the nomination after depicting himself as the champion of the underclass with his “two Americas” theme.
One reason Us vs. Them campaigns often falter: Most Americans don’t think of things that way. Despite the miserable economy, a Washington Post-Pew Research Center Poll in September found that 52 percent object to the notion that the country is divided into haves and have-nots, a number that hasn’t changed much in the past decade. “I’m not sure populism is a losing proposition,” says Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center. “But it’s not something people inherently grab onto.”
Democratic pollster Mark Penn, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign, notes that Obama won in 2008 by appealing to all income levels. “He got elected by getting an enormous number of those people making under $35,000, half of those making over $100,000, and the majority of those making over $200,000,” Penn says. “It’s important for the President to move into the reelection keeping his high-low coalition intact.”
Some of Obama’s wealthiest supporters aren’t enamored of his new tone. Anthony Scaramucci, founder of SkyBridge Capital, a $7.7 billion investment fund, backed Obama in 2008. This year he has thrown his support behind Republican Mitt Romney. “It’s going to be very hard for the President to bash the rich and create jobs at the same time,” Scaramucci says. “I don’t think this country is about class warfare.”
While his jobs plan could bring down unemployment, it’s unlikely to do much to address the Occupy Wall Street dissidents’ primary concerns: income inequality. “It would just keep things from getting worse,” says Isabel V. Sawhill, senior fellow for economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
That’s not likely to win Obama friends in Zuccotti Park—or on the campaign trail. In 2008, Obama provided a focus for idealistic young people who wanted to change the system. Now many of the college students and recent grads who are flocking to Occupy Wall Street demonstrations seem to consider the President only as an afterthought—or worse, as part of the problem. On Oct. 11, Carlos Gomar, a 23-year-old communications major at the University of Utah, marched past the Upper East Side homes of Wall Street executives with about 500 other protesters, carrying a sign with the slogan, “Throw me a bone. Pay my tuition.” Obama’s plans to get American back to work, he says, “are good, but not good enough.”
The bottom line: As Obama moves to embrace the protesters on Wall Street, electoral history suggests that he would do well to moderate his populist tone.