Salena Zito

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.

“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.”


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.