As a candidate, Obama called for overturning Bushism. The practice of Obamaism has been to undo Clintonism. All those Clinton-era lessons -- showing fiscal responsibility, appealing to middle-class concerns, displaying symbolic respect for moral conservatism and law-and-order sentiments -- were discarded in the thrill of hope and change.
Some desperate Democrats now want the president to regress even further -- past Clinton, all the way to Huey Long. Flog the fat cats; every man a king. But inauthentic populism in a politician is as painfully obvious as a child trying to muster fake tears. In his populist mode, Obama seems grumpy, offended and surprised by the views of his own country. And, as the president found last week, attacks on Wall Street and taxes on banks tend to spook the markets. Unlike Obama, Huey Long was not held responsible for declines in millions of 401(k)s.
The more serious counsel is for Obama to return to Clintonism. This seems to be the theory of Obama's recently unveiled spending freeze covering about 17 percent of the federal budget, and his middle-class relief package, which includes child care tax credits and easier IRA deposits.
In normal circumstances, these moderate, small-scale proposals would be promising. In my political past, I pushed for similar ideas in Bush's State of the Union addresses. But this isn't the moment for Clintonism. Economic stagnation and the prospect of inflation caused by massive debt overwhelm this kind of political approach.
The need of the moment is job creation, which has nothing to do with the typical priorities of Democratic jobs legislation. In December, the White House held a "jobs summit" to which the main small-business groups were symbolically uninvited. The House passed a "jobs bill" that reprised the stimulus package -- more public spending on roads, unemployment benefits and teachers' salaries. Said Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei of New York, "The bill we passed in the House, I don't think was real. It was all spending, no tax cuts."
It is not enough for the president to argue that health reform is really a jobs program or that energy policy will create green jobs. Job creation depends on a vigorous private sector, which requires a better atmosphere for small-business creation and expansion, which means fewer regulations and lower taxes, especially on returns to investment. The formation of capital is jobs creation.
This approach is more Ronald Reagan than Huey Long. Adopting it would show Obama's seriousness at a serious moment.