A well-crafted populist message could help achieve both those aims. The Great Recession shocked most Americans into realizing the tremendous damage that financial institutions, when largely unregulated, could do to their livelihoods and to the health of the larger economy. As the “no bailout” mantra of Tea Partiers attests, most conservatives are no more enamored of Wall Street than are liberals. Obama could explain, in clear and passionate terms, how the crisis of 2008 occurred and why only strict laws and constant vigilance can prevent one from recurring. At the same time, he needs to make a moral argument for a humane and effective state: Why higher wages, universal health care, enhanced funding for public and college education, and secure benefits for the elderly and unemployed are all essential to future economic growth—and why the GOP’s hostility to unions, funding the public sector, and desire to privatize Medicare and Social Security amount to a blueprint for national decline.
Unlike the simplistic bashing of the rich, this is a rhetorical strategy that would be popular, as well as populist. It would appeal to the young and the old, to white workers as well as to blacks and Latinos. And it’s one that, in most parts of the country, Democratic candidates for the House and Senate would be glad to echo. In a period of high, and quite rational, anxiety about the American future, such a populism gives them a message both stern and inspirational to run on.