History

The Audacity of Populism

Obama dons a venerable mantle, but Bryan's real descendants may be media stars.

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January 2010 was the month President Barack Obama tried to get in touch with his inner populist. Shaken by a Republican victory in Massachusetts and the likely defeat of his health-care bill, he adopted the lingo of an insurrectionary orator, calling out the big banks in his State of the Union address.

"If these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again," he said, "they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need." For much of the media, that was enough to conjure an image of Mr. Obama in bib overalls at the head of a pitchfork army.

That's one possible reaction to the president's rhetoric. Here's another: How can anyone possibly take this pose seriously? If all you knew about Barack Obama was that he once held a job called "community organizer," you might be forgiven for finding something populist in his persona. The rest of you have no excuses. Even when attacking the malefactors of great wealth, Mr. Obama evinces all the insurgent anger of Charlie Rose obsequiously interviewing a starlet.

To cast this man as a populist, you needn't merely imagine an alternate America where a William Jennings Bryan, the explosive orator who ran unsuccessfully three times for the White House in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has actually captured the presidency. You need to imagine a Bryan who went to Harvard and taught at an elite law school, who received more money than his opponent from Wall Street and the corporate media, who personally intervened during the presidential campaign to help a bank bailout become law, who surrounded himself with advisers drawn from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, and whose solution to an economic crisis has been to propose a program of corporate subsidies. A populist? Even at his most liberal, pushing a plan to move the country toward universal health coverage, Mr. Obama's idea of advancing reform is to cut deals with all the industries involved so they'll back his legislation.

Read the rest of this story in The Wall Street Journal.