June 19, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Joe Biden is picking up where Barack Obama left off

Cheers for Bidenomics.

Courtesy of the AP.
Courtesy of the AP.

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Donald Trump has affected (or infected) our minds such that we forget something important. He advanced Barack Obama’s populism among white Republicans. 

In the beginning, Obama was not a populist, of course – not an economic populist. He was not conspicuous about his belief that the very obscenely rich should be forced to pay a higher share of their wealth in taxes. He would not be fully forthright about this belief until after the 2007-2008 financial panic but, more importantly, not until after a grassroots social movement called Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street established an awareness, greater than any beforehand, of the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the former getting the cream of the economy while the latter surviving on the dregs. On that, Obama built his 2012 reelection campaign. He characterized his opponent as the same kind of a “vulture capitalist” who had defrauded millions and triggered the long Great Recession. 

Populists don’t have to present themselves as the solution. Nor must they come from outside the existing order. They can be at the height of power while claiming to speak for all. Populists, in other words, can be small-d democrats.

Donald Trump has made an art form out of taking something that a Black president said and making it appealing to the white-power base of the Republican Party. The more Obama said that he spoke for the 99 percent, the deeper the impression he made in GOP circles that he was a communist. But when Trump seemed to express openness to taxing the rich, he wasn’t seen as a communist. He was seen as a populist. 

Trump was a populist, of course, and he still is – a “cultural populist,” according to the scholarly nomenclature. He did and still does champion laws and policies that privilege “the master race.” If he has been good for nothing else, Trump has been good for revealing a core truth about many Americans. Those who say they hate the government actually don’t, as long as it’s government of, by and for the Herrenvolk.

I would guess that, for most Americans, the line between “cultural populism” and “economic populism” is so blurry as to be invisible. One has to do with (anti-Black) racism. (Obama’s populism stood against anti-Black racism.) The other has to do with a popular resentment of the very obscenely rich. But both claim to speak for groups no more distinct than an ordinary majority against an extraordinary minority.

That bothers some liberals. In my mind, these are respectable white people who believe that political neutrality is not only possible but desirable, and that political institutions are, or should be, insulated from the effects of democratic politics. These white liberals are now worried about a possible erosion of public trust in the wake of the current president’s administration indicting a former president.

But populism’s problem isn’t that it’s populist, wrote Australian scholars Octavia Bryant and Benjamin Moffitt. The problem, more often than not, is that it’s rightwing politics in disguise. In 2019, they wrote that populism “has often been conflated with authoritarianism and anti-immigration ideas. But these features are more to do with the ideology of the radical right than they are to do with populism itself.”

That’s just one reason white liberals don’t like it. The other is, or should be, more concerning to them. They don’t trust populism – economic or cultural – because populism challenges a status quo that, whether or not they admit it, currently gives privilege to “the master race.”

“Populists are disruptive,” Bryant and Moffitt wrote for The Conversation. “They position themselves as outsiders who are radically different and separate from the existing order. So they frequently advocate for a change to the status quo and may champion the need for urgent structural change, whether that is economic or cultural.”

Populists often promote “a sense of crisis (whether true or not), and presenting themselves as having the solution to the crisis,” Bryant and Moffitt wrote. They don’t have to, though. Nor must they come from outside the existing order. They can be at the height of power while claiming to speak for all. Populists can be normal small-d democrats.

That’s Joe Biden.

The Associated Press reported that he “delivered an unapologetically economic populist message Saturday during the first rally of his reelection campaign, telling an exuberant crowd of union members that his policies had created jobs and lifted the middle class. Now, he said, is the time for the wealthy to ‘pay their fair share’ in taxes.”

“Biden spotlighted the sweeping climate, tax and health care package signed into law last year that cut the cost of prescription drugs and lowered insurance premiums — pocketbook issues that advisers say will be the centerpiece of his argument for a second term,” the AP reported.

He’s picking up where Barack Obama left off.

But unlike Obama, he’s running on accomplishments.

Popular accomplishments.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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