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Analysis: Obama using populist appeals in 2010

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LIZ SIDOTI
January 19, 2010
— President Barack Obama is using strikingly populist appeals to an angry electorate in Massachusetts' Senate race, a likely preview of his November strategy to curb steep Democratic Party losses in Congress and the nation's statehouses.

"When the chips are down, when the tough votes come, on all the fights that matter to middle-class families ... who is going to be on your side?" Obama asked Sunday, shedding his executive-like tie as he campaigned for a struggling Democratic candidate and tested a midterm election message.


His answer: Democrats work for the little guys on Main Street while Republicans do the bidding of Wall Street.


In the short-term, Democrats hope the late-game pitch by Obama is enough to push Democrat Martha Coakley over the edge in her surprisingly competitive campaign against Republican Scott Brown. Long term, Democrats hear Obama toying with a potential antidote to the angry populist rhetoric of hard-charging Republicans and the "tea party" movement.


At stake in Tuesday's special election is the 60th Senate vote Democrats need to prevent Republican filibusters of Obama's agenda, and, specifically, his health care overhaul plan that's nearing completion. In the fall, Democrats could lose big chunks of their majorities in the House and Senate.


Brown, a little-known state senator, turned an expected blowout into an even race by casting himself as a pickup truck-driving man of the people. He tapped into animosity and resentment coursing through the public over Wall Street bailouts, budget-busting spending and big government.


It's the same bitter sentiment that the GOP is trying to play to as it opposes Obama's agenda, the same state of mind that a year ago ignited the "tea party" movement. Drawing from the 1773 tax revolt, it's a grassroots network of people fueled by antiestablishment frustrations over the economy, bailouts and the government's hand in health care.


Fighting populism with populism, Obama and his Democrats have attacked Brown for opposing the president's proposed bank bailout tax.


If successful, Obama's us-against-them approach could serve as a roadmap for how the White House and the Democratic Party will defend seats in Congress and statehouses during the first midterm elections of Obama's presidency.


"That's a lot of what 2010 is going to be about," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "People are going to have to decide whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they're on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they're on the side of protecting insurance companies, or whether they're on the people's side."


He said the president will talk a lot about that between now and November.


In truth, Obama and fellow Democrats have little choice but to take the populist route, given how sour the mood is across the country in the year since the president and the Democratic-controlled Congress orchestrated an enormous federal intervention into the teetering U.S. economy.


In his first weeks, Obama successfully pressed for a $787 billion measure intended to stimulate the economy, took over the flailing automotive industry, pushed forth the second installment of the Wall Street bailout that began under Bush, and started work on a complete overhaul of the country's health care system.


Now, just one year after Obama took the helm under the banner of hope, there is animosity and resentment over federal spending and government expansion, if not regret over electing the Democrat.


A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that just 37 percent of people think the nation is on the right course, and a majority of Americans prefer smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services. Obama's job performance rating hovers just above or below 50 percent, depending on the survey, and more than half of the country doesn't approve of how he's handled top domestic issues, including the economy, health care and the federal budget deficit.


While there are different types of populism, politicians often resort to the us-vs.-them style during periods of economic downturn to identify with the middle class. Most recently, Bill Clinton talked about putting people first in 1992, while Richard Nixon talked about the "silent majority" of middle America.


Given voter attitudes and Republicans' success in addressing them, Obama now is making a new pitch. And he's sounding far more populist than he ever did during his own campaign, when he left that role to Democrats John Edwards and Hillary Rodham Clinton.


In a 25-minute speech at Northeastern University on Sunday, Obama said Coakley has a proven record of fighting for people.


"Martha knows the struggles Massachusetts working families face because she's lived those struggles. She's fought for the people of Massachusetts every single day," Obama said, in a line that was made into a TV ad. He said she took on Wall Street as attorney general, while going after big insurance companies and predatory lenders.


Brown, he said, was just another Republican who will side with special interests, like drug companies, oil producers and financial industries, rather than the everyday American. He went after Brown directly for his opposition to the Wall Street tax, and, in doing so, fired a warning shot to other Republicans who are against the plan.


"She's got your back. Her opponent has got Wall Street's back," Obama said. "Let me be clear: Bankers don't need another vote in the United States Senate. They've got plenty. Where's yours? That's the question."


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EDITOR'S NOTE Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.



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