John B. Judis: Defending ‘The Unnecessary Fall of Barack Obama’





[John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.]

In the week since my story on “the unnecessary fall of Barack Obama” came out, I have been accused of being “hysterical” and “ahistorical,” of glorifying Ronald Reagan, of “moving away from” my “previously clear-eyed stance on the primary source of Obama's troubles,” and of relying on the same “white-working-class Theory of Everything” I have been “peddling … ever since summer 2008.” And that’s just in public. Privately, the criticism has been far more withering and has included words far too incendiary to print in a family magazine. But I’ve spent a lot of time considering some of the (quite thought-provoking and reasonable) counter-arguments to my piece, and I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to them here.  

1. You shouldn’t be encouraging populism.Or you are wrong to make populism the answer or the main answer to Obama’s political difficulties.

I don’t consider myself a “populist.” I am much more of a Herbert Croly-progressive with a touch of elitism. I wasn’t arguing for populism as a political ideal, but as the means by which Obama could have more plausibly achieved objectives that he, and I, and many Americans share: a return to a buoyant prosperity, a narrowing of inequality, and the reinforcement of the social safety net. To achieve these during the present severe downturn requires strong political majorities. And to get those, Obama—or any president—has to frame his appeal in populist terms.

I am not making the ridiculous assertion that populism is “hardwired” into the American brain. But in the course of American history, certain conceptions—or worldviews—have been passed from generation to generation, and insofar as they have not been repeatedly contradicted by events, have endured. One of these, for instance, is what historian Ernest Tuveson called the idea of America as the “redeemer nation.” When Americans have had to make hard foreign policy choices, the politicians have invariably appealed to America’s role as world savior. Another is Thomas Paine’s idea of government as a “necessary evil,” which invariably pops up as an explanation for our economic ills.  Populism—as a defense of the embattled middle class—is a similarly enduring worldview. Populist arguments don’t always carry the day, but during domestic crises, they will be heard, and politicians ignore them at their peril.

Mike Kazin, who wrote the definitive book on populist rhetoric, suggests that I am exaggerating the role of populism in Franklin Roosevelt’s success in his first two years. I disagree with Mike on this point. One can compare what Roosevelt said and did in his first months with what Obama said and did....

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