Obama’s distance from tonal populism led many to think that he was ill-suited for engaging in populist appeals of any kind. But whether awkward in the task or not, Obama has taken to “political” populism in a most assertive way. Political populism involves pitting one part of the community against another in order to generate energy and boost popularity. Like tonal populism, it identifies a popular “us” (“the people”) and an oligarchic “them” (the “elite” or “special interests”), but, not content merely to establish sympathies and associations, it goes on to promise important policy changes, such as punishing the biggest interests and spreading the wealth around.
There is both a leftist and a rightist version of political populism. The left speaks of an economic power elite that is manipulating the system to its advantage, oppressing the people. The right speaks of a class of experts bent on using public authority to transform morals and run people’s lives. The left will resolve the problem by taking on Big Capital; the right by confronting Big Government. These two versions reflect parts of the genuine public philosophies of liberalism and conservatism, with the result that elements of the two populisms are apt to appear in public discourse as genuine arguments. But political populism in its full sense occurs when the populist themes become the core of the presentation, deployed to win support and boost or solidify opinion. Politicians clearly know when they are “going populist.” When the president launches an attack on a Supreme Court decision for aiding “Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans,” there is no mystery in what he is up to. Subtlety is rarely a feature of a populist appeal.
Populism as a technique is often contrasted with a statesman-like tone, which normally aims to appeal to reason and tamp down conflict and division. Statesmanship in the highest sense is the management of affairs for the public good, which in rare cases may require an approach that divides. But the statesman only adopts this path when necessary and never for mere political gain. The usual posture of the statesman is calming and deliberate, which is what is meant by the term “presidential.” To engage in populism and parallel demagogic tricks—to blame others, to mock, to display no magnanimity toward opponents—all of these actions necessarily appear unpresidential. They are fitting for campaigns, but they make a president look smaller.