“Progressives are different from populists because what they actually want is their view of a better, more moral society,” said Lara Brown, an expert in movements and U.S. presidents at Villanova University.
“They view the people as a social collective, whereas the populists view the people as a mass of individuals.”
Lyndon Johnson embraced progressivism but that didn’t win him the presidency in 1964.
He won by wrapping himself in JFK’s mantle, says Christopher Kelley, an expert on the presidency at Miami of Ohio University.
By 1968 Johnson was buried in the Vietnam War’s unpopularity and urban unrest similar to the Occupy movement; he lost the white middle-class constituency, which viewed him as having lost control. So he decided not to run for re-election.
George McGovern ran a populist campaign in 1972 and was trounced. Jimmy Carter ran a populist campaign in 1976 and won but lost in a landslide four years later, says Michael Genovese, a political scientist at Loyola University.
“After that, no real populist campaigner emerged in the Democratic Party,” Genovese adds. “By the time (Al) Gore tried it (in 2000), it was too little too late. He was never a real populist and, when he tried to be one, he looked like he was play-acting.”
All four experts agree Obama as an angry populist, pitting neighbor against neighbor, is a risky yet perhaps necessary path to re-election.
“I understand why he does it, and there is a sentiment that people are frustrated,” Zelizer concludes, but “this is a different Obama than 2008, one that has been an inside-the-beltway president who generally favors the status quo.”
And he says Obama faces the Al Gore danger: “If he does too much of it, a lot of liberals won’t buy it and won’t vote.”