GETTYSBURG – On Memorial Day 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson stood where Abraham Lincoln gave his immortal address here. In a calculated leap, Johnson gave a politically charged speech at an event meant to mark a solemn occasion.
It marked his transformation from a Texas conservative into a progressive populist.
Americans have long embraced populist movements emphasizing the disconnect between elites and Main Street. Sometimes these movements lead to the White House; more often, they do not.
The upside of populism is when it rails against government and achieves something better through real reform; the downside is when it pits one segment of society against another and fails to condemn the resulting violence.
President Barack Obama is going full-force populist to seek re-election, giving a wink and a nod to the nation’s “occupy” movements, attacking Wall Street (while taking its money in fundraisers), and deploying surrogates and local Democratic Party chairs to mimic the “occupier” language.
“I understand the frustrations that are being expressed in those protests," the president said in an interview with ABC News.
"The most important thing we can do right now,” he added, “is letting people know that … we are on their side."
Talking about Republican opponents such as Mitt Romney, he said on a jobs bus-tour that Republicans "want to gut regulations. They want to let Wall Street do whatever it wants."
In response, Romney told the Trib that Obama's populist rhetoric, pitting Americans against Americans, is a far cry from what the president ran on in 2008.
“There is no way that America can lead the world in jobs, innovation and rising incomes if we divide our nation,” Romney said.
“It is united-we-stand and divided-we-fall, and a president who is looking to divide the nation and to disparage fellow Americans … has no right to be the leader of the free world.”
Obama is in the worst of both worlds right now, according to Julian Zelizer, presidential historian at Princeton University. “He has a record that he has talked about for a few years and now looks as if he is running as a populist,” he said.
Zelizer said Obama's reelection is endangered if he embraces protests such as the Occupy movement: “You don't know where it goes, whether it turns violent, messy or fizzles out, and you have aligned yourself with it.”
What is often described now as populism (class warfare, more social programs to redistribute wealth) is really more progressivism.