Behind Obama's Populist Makeover

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Kurtz

The president's friends (and foes) on what prompted his lurch to the left--and whether it will work.

The populist reincarnation of President Obama since Labor Day--with his stinging attacks on tax-coddled millionaires, corporate-jet owners, and oil companies--emerged from a moment of reflection during a summer of discontent.

For months after the Democrats' "shellacking" last November, Obama resisted bashing corporate America and the GOP as he had done so effectively as the "hope and change" orator in 2008 and as a young president who pushed through Congress an $800 billion stimulus, a universal-health-care law, and sweeping Wall Street reform.

But by the end of June, with the nation teetering near the brink of default and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor walking away from negotiations over a debt deal, the president summoned his top aides for a frank assessment of how to get back on track.

Senior adviser David Plouffe told Obama it was time to "draw some lines in the sand" by launching an aggressive assault on tax breaks for corporate high fliers and hedge-fund managers.

The president was energized, saying such loopholes were "indefensible" while spending was being slashed and that "this is a public argument we can and should win." He tested the message with reporters soon afterward.

Thus began a full-throated return to Obama's populism, which had been muffled by frustrating attempts at bipartisanship and a stop-and-start effort with Republicans and the business community that one adviser says had become a "road wreck."

At a meeting with his staff to draw up a new jobs bill, Obama warned against playing small ball. "I do not want the first filter to be whether it can get the support of House Republicans," he told his staff.

Obama's revised strategy came into full focus in a fiery speech last month in which he laid out a $450 billion plan clearly aimed at generating middle-class jobs while targeting millionaires and big business for tax hikes.

That strategy may do little to break the political paralysis gripping Washington or solve the riddle of joblessness, but it has returned the president to a message and style that fits more comfortably than his long, and often awkward, courtship of corporate America and its Republican allies in Congress.

At first Obama interpreted the midterm election losses as a call from voters to engage the business world and compromise with Republicans. The election results made clear that voters--especially independents--were angry with Obama for failing to deliver the jobs he had promised. The administration responded by looking for new ways to stimulate demand and ease regulatory burdens that business executives claim are keeping them from reinvesting stockpiles of cash and hiring more workers.

Obama met privately with CEOs at Blair House--across the street from the White House--in December 2010. He was told bluntly but politely that big business wanted fewer regulations, new tax incentives, and the resurrection of long-delayed trade agreements.

Obama soon trekked across the street again to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to make amends with a pro-business lobby that had been the object of many Democratic attacks. "Maybe we would have gotten off on a better foot if I had brought over a fruitcake when we first moved in," Obama quipped.

By February, the president was reaching out to Silicon Valley's entrepreneurs in a private dinner that reaffirmed the disconnect between Obama's approach and what business titans believed was necessary for a lasting recovery.

At a white-clothed table in the California dining room of venture capitalist John Doerr, Obama dined with a dozen gurus from Silicon Valley's hottest companies. Flanked by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg on his right and Apple's Steve Jobs on his left, Obama was among friendly faces--Oracle's Larry Ellison across from him, along with the chieftains of Google, Yahoo, Netflix, and Cisco--eager to offer advice on solving the maddening riddle of joblessness and economic decline. …