From charisma to populism—this is the slippery slope down which Barack Obama has been sliding over the past two years. In June 2008, Obama the candidate described his nomination as “the moment when . . . our planet began to heal.” In June 2010, Obama the president promised his partisans he would find an “ass to kick.”
With the peculiar magic of his presidential campaign now a faded memory, Obama is shoring up support by the cruder method of divisive appeals. Long before the current (already hugely extended) campaign season began, Obama made it a practice to target opposition symbols (“the insurance industry,” “speculators,” “a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” the oil companies), call out and assail individual opponents (Rush Limbaugh, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner), and refer disparagingly to the Tea Party movement and Republicans in general (“this crowd”). More than a half-year before the midterm elections, he tried to revive his electoral base of “young people, African Americans, Latinos, and women” by taking a page from Al Gore’s 2000 campaign and embracing the shop-worn slogan, “I won’t stop fighting for you.”
An ass-thumping president frantically fighting for the little guy—it’s hard to imagine George Washington or Abraham Lincoln choosing to project an image of this kind. Barack Obama has managed a rare feat in American history: The longer he is president, the less presidential he has become. Obama has reversed the usual process of growth and maturation, appearing today far more like a candidate for the presidency—and a very ordinary one at that—than he did during the latter stages of his campaign.
He has also become practitioner-in-chief of what Alexander Hamilton referred to in Federalist 68 as the “little arts of popularity.” These arts, Hamilton well knew, would become an inevitable feature of democratic politics. But their spread from the province of political campaigns into the “normal” conduct of the presidency represents a dramatic reversal of the Founders’ design. The Constitution was crafted to prevent a campaign-style presidency; Obama is in the midst of creating one.
Although many will quibble about the right words for describing Obama’s leadership style, the general direction in which he has been heading is beyond dispute. In January 2010, the Obama-friendly Huffington Post ran a headline: “President Takes Populist Message on the Road.” Even some of his staunchest and most serious supporters, among them Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, have commended Obama for “turning toward populism.” By “populism” these observers were referring to divisive “us against them” appeals meant to rile up and energize a base.
What the president’s supporters add by way of explanation, if excuses for employing the “little arts of popularity” are still necessary, is that Obama is only responding to an unprecedented series of attacks from his detractors. But this explanation misses the main point, which is not the alleged behavior of gatherings of citizens, but the norms and standards of the presidency. Many past presidents endured harsh criticisms from the press and from popular movements of their day, but considered it unpresidential to respond in kind. Not Barack Obama, who has found his comfort zone in magnifying and then assaulting any kind of opposition. This excuse for Obama’s style also overlooks that he does not want for other means to get his message across. Obama has at his beck and call a staff of professional spokespersons, not to mention the editorial page of the New York Times.
It may be, however, that Obama has created a box for himself from which he cannot escape. He has so monopolized and personalized the public relations aspect of his office that now only his own voice can speak for the presidency. Profligacy in the use of public access—almost a speech a day—has made indirectness impossible. A president who has become his own chief point man puts at risk an asset that is helpful to his standing and vital for the nation’s political system: the dignity of the presidential office.