Obama's speech in Arizona reminded Americans that his rhetorical skills are unparalleled; now he must display that same eloquence and urgency when it comes to solving the economic crisis, especially since many Americans remain perplexed by the length and depth of the recession. "What's missing is a story line," says Reich. "What caused the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, and why are we having such a hard time getting out of it? Why are working- and middle-class people hurting so much, and what are we going to do about it? That story line has to be reiterated over and over."
The opportunity is ripe for Obama to pull a reverse Reagan — articulating a progressive populism that is more relevant now than at any time since the 1930s, indicting the excesses of corporate conservatism and runaway capitalism. "We often talk about how upset Americans are at government," says pollster Cornell Belcher, who has worked for Obama and Howard Dean. "You know who they're also upset with? They're upset with the big corporations and the banking industry, who they think have been gouging them and not playing by the rules." The best estimates for 2012 forecast unemployment above 8 percent, a statistic no president since FDR has recovered from in his first term, which underscores the need for Obama to side with struggling Americans.
"The narrative is obvious," says Stan Greenberg. "We have an economic philosophy centered on making the middle class richer, and they have an economic philosophy which says trickle-down." Making that story stick would require both a rhetorical and policy shift from the Obama administration — sharpening the populist language and outlining ambitious proposals to turn the economy around. Yet there's little evidence that Obama's team is prepared to adopt such an approach, especially given that his core advisers are former Wall Street insiders or policy-makers sympathetic to them. Obama's aversion to populism has turned him into what Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne calls a "Wall Street Liberal" — a big-spending friend of the banks.
Progressive Democrats have pushed Obama to shed that label. Last summer Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Robert Kuttner of Demos/The American Prospect met with Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod and urged the White House to unveil an ambitious job-creation plan that Democrats could run on in 2010 and 2012. They wanted the White House to embrace a more expansive economic vision, not just to think tactically about legislation before Congress. Axelrod rejected the advice, arguing that the Senate didn't have the votes to pass a jobs plan and, anyway, polling showed that the public didn't want the government to spend more money. "They think they've done a great job and it's just a matter of time before the economy recovers," Hickey says. The public evidently disagrees. Roughly 50 percent of Americans say Obama has spent too little time "trying to create jobs and fix the economy," according to a December New York Times/CBS News poll. In another postelection poll, 56 percent of Americans ranked the economy and jobs as their top priority for the new Congress, while only 4 percent named the deficit.
Despite those numbers, these days the Obama team seems far more preoccupied with deficit reduction than job creation. "What I want to hear is jobs," Begala says of the upcoming State of the Union address. "What I predict is the deficit." Indeed, the administration just hired Bruce Reed, former head of the DLC and executive director of the president's deficit commission, as Vice President Joe Biden's new chief of staff. The president has been boxed in by the GOP: unable to raise taxes or spend money. Under the GOP's formula, budget cuts are his only option. Austerity politics rules the day. As a result, Hickey and other progressive organizers are looking outside the White House for leadership on the economy. "We need the highest-level group in Congress to say to the White House, We need a jobs plan," Hickey says. The Local Jobs for America Act, introduced last year by Representative George Miller and Senator Sherrod Brown, could be the basis for those discussions.
Ultimately, though, the president has the nation's bully pulpit. It's up to Obama to use it.