This is supposed to be the week in which President Obama’s bid for re-election takes a populist, progressive turn. By positioning himself as the candidate who believes in giving the common man “a fair shot,” it is clear that the president hopes to turn his yet-to-be-determined Republican opponent into a straw man for the big banks and the one percent. It is a new strategy for Obama, and it sets the stage for 2012 – this will be a divisive election animated by the worst demons of American politics. In other words, Obama is gearing up to run precisely the kind of campaign he built his career arguing against, thus delivering the coup de grâce to the feel-good, post-partisan image he so carefully cultivated during his rise to power. Still, none of this is surprising. The only consistent element in this president’s career has been opportunism, from the streets of Chicago, through his brief photo-op as a United States senator, up to his time in the White House. Barack Obama has always had a knack for doing what was best for Barack Obama – when it was best for Barack Obama.
Now, however, one gets the sense that the president’s chameleon instincts have become overdeveloped, and that this most recent change in identity is a just a bit too cute to be effective. It was only last week that presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin offered Theodore Roosevelt as a role model for Obama, which may or may not say something about how deep Obama’s love for TR actually runs. The parallels which Obama wants to draw are obvious – consumer protection, environmental protection, and financial protection. You get the picture: TR fought for the little guy, Obama will do the same.
The problem, of course, is that Theodore Roosevelt was actually a fighter, and he had a lifetime of battles won and lost to prove it. The notion that Obama can take up that mantle and march through the 2012 election with it, borders on the absurd. Both the left and independents will ultimately reject this play – the left because they believe the President has been soft on the banks and the rich. The independents because they will see it as one final demonstration of the President’s cynicism and the ultimate condemnation of his performance in office – when you have to run away from the things you’ve done in office, rather than run on them, you know you’re in trouble. And on consumer protection, environmental protection, and financial protection, Obama is running away from his record. Theodore Roosevelt was many things, but above all he was a genuine man of ideas, not simply a candidate of convenience. Obama’s populist turn may sound good on television, and it may very well energize the liberal base for a few days, but it doesn’t change the basic problem: he’s no Teddy Roosevelt.