Obama Champions the Middle Class and Draws on Populism's History

Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images

'This isn't about class warfare. This is about the nation's welfare.'

William Jennings Bryan Bettman-Corbis

Back in the 1890s, the so-called Great Commoner churned up a short-lived populist movement by giving stirring speeches to desperate farmers. Bryan invented stumping, orating up to six hours a day, so we have him to thank for the Progressive reforms of the early 20th century--and today's endless campaign speechifying.

Teddy Roosevelt Museum of the City of New York-Getty Images

After leaving the White House, the mustachioed 26th president turned his attention to the nefarious connections between politics and business, eventually forming the Bull Moose Party in 1912. The Occupy Wall Street crowd owes a great debt to Roosevelt's crusades against corporate malfeasance.

Huey Long General Photographic Agency-Getty Images

The charismatic Louisiana governor and U.S. senator made his populist bones proposing to fund old-age pensions by heavily taxing "excess fortunes" and capping family estates. The Kingfish was assassinated in 1935 before he could launch a planned campaign against FDR.

George Wallace Hulton-Getty Images

In one of the darker chapters in American populism, Wallace became a hero to many blue-collar Southerners by opposing integration. As Alabama governor, he stood in front of the University of Alabama to block the first black students from enrolling and spent his days railing against the "tyranny" of the federal government.

Ross Perot J. David Ake / AFP-Getty Images

The wily Texas billionaire became a viable third-party presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996 by championing a populism of the center. Rather than drawing battle lines between tax brackets, he pitted the political class against the rest of America, famously running 30-minute TV advertisements to encourage Washington to change its corrupt ways.

OWS Mario Tama- Getty Images

What started as a small protest in lower Manhattan quickly ballooned into a left-wing movement to rival the Tea Party. Its outrage over the "rigged" economy quickly caught on, inspiring demonstrations across the country and leading President Obama to borrow its slogans for campaign talking points.