Over the last week, the president has been flight-testing a populist pitch that tries to rekindle the loyalty and enthusiasm that propelled him into the White House. The tone might be new for the Cool One, but he's following the oldest script in the Democrats' canon: the Little Guy vs. Big Business, Main Street vs. Wall Street, Us vs. Them.
Pitchfork Barry rolled out his new image by proposing $90 billion in new taxes on 50 of the nation's largest financial institutions -- including many that profited from emergency government subsidies last year. "We want our money back, and we're going to get it," he railed, using the sort of incendiary language he was never taught at Harvard Law School.
That was only the beginning of the rebranding campaign. Banks, said the president, were guilty of making "massive profits" and paying "obscene bonuses" while "sticking the American taxpayer with the bill" for their greedy behavior and bad judgments. When he campaigned for Senate candidate Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, the First Populist cast her as a fellow gate-crasher: "She's got your back, her opponent's got Wall Street's back. Bankers don't need another vote in the United States Senate. They've got plenty. Where's yours?"
In case there was any shred of doubt left, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Pitchfork Barry would travel the country this year, asking voters "whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they're on the side of protecting big oil companies, whether they're on the side of protecting insurance companies or whether they're on the people's side." Clear enough for you?
The question is, will the strategy work? Will it boost the president's sagging poll numbers (his average job-approval rating has dipped under 50 percent)? Will it reassure fearful Democratic lawmakers and help them survive a gathering Republican tide in November?
Clearly, voters are upset with the big banks, and they should be. Paying out lavish bonuses just months after paying back government handouts is an act of supreme arrogance. But Obama's populist plea didn't work in Massachusetts, and it might not work in other places, either.
First, the Pitchfork Barry thing doesn't feel quite right. Obama's biggest political asset is calmness, not anger. He sells reason, not red meat. He He Hedoesn't start fires; he puts them out.
More seriously, Obama is no longer an insurgent. He's the essential symbol of national strength and prestige. It's hard to oppose entrenched power when you are surrounded by Secret Service agents and fly around in Air Force One.
The president's dilemma was strikingly illustrated during the Massachusetts Senate race, when Republican Scott Brown consciously emulated Obama's appeal of 2008. "They are tired of business as usual," Brown said of the state's voters. "They want someone who isn't part of the machine or an insider."
Brown, a long-shot loner driving a pickup truck, was perfectly suited to capture that sentiment. The president -- no matter how many burgers he eats or jump shots he sinks -- is not just "part of the machine," he runs it. He owns it.
Obama has also been victimized by circumstance. When he ran for office, he had no intention of pouring billions of dollars into the big banks, insurance companies and automakers, but once he took charge, he had no choice. The basic misjudgments that fueled a soaring unemployment rate were made long before he became president.
But he has made his share of mistakes as well. The president never effectively rebutted the notion that the government "bailed out" the banks. He never convinced voters that the entire financial system was at risk and that ordinary Americans had a clear stake in its survival. And he never made the case that fixing health care was necessary for fixing the economy.
Instead, he looked out of touch with many Americans who liked their healthcare coverage but were petrified of losing their jobs.
The president is the most gifted public communicator since Ronald Reagan, and his personal popularity remains high. In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, 63 percent call him a strong leader, and 57 percent think he shares their values. But it's difficult to run a populist campaign from the Oval Office. How can Pitchfork Barry storm the castle if he lives in it?
Steve Roberts' new book,
"From Every End of This Earth" (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and
Cokie Roberts can
be contacted by e-mail at