President Obama is pinning his hopes for re-election on a populist message that focuses on income inequality. According to former Clinton aide William Galston, that’s a bad idea.
Professor Galston, writing in The New Republic, says that recent surveys shows that most Americans don’t share Obama’s views when it comes to income inequality. In fact, according to Galston, if Obama’s recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas – which made repeated references to income inequality — becomes the thematic narrative for his reelection campaign, it may well reduce his chances of prevailing in a close race.
In explaining why, Galston examines data, starting with a Gallup survey released earlier this month, which showed that the number of Americans who see American society as divided into haves and have-nots has decreased significantly since the 2008 election. In 2008, 49 percent saw the country as divided along those lines and 49 percent didn’t. As of this week, only 41 percent see the country as divided between haves and have-nots while 58 percent do not. And most of the reduction in those seeing the country as economically divided has occurred among those who place themselves squarely in the middle in American politics.
In 2008, 48 percent of independents saw an economic divide; today it’s 37 percent.
In 2008, 51 percent of moderates saw a divide versus only 38 percent now.
Liberals are the only group that has become more likely to see a divided society—63 percent in 2008 versus 66 percent today. “While invoking sharpening divisions will thrill them,” Galston writes, “it may have the opposite effect on the moderates and independents without whose support national Democratic candidates will fail.”
In another Gallup poll, substantial majorities of Americans saw expanding the economy and increasing equality of opportunity as extremely or very important. That is not the case for reducing income and wealth gaps—21 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of independents. Only Democrats gave this goal a high priority (by a margin of 72 versus 27 percent).
When Gallup asked a sample of Americans in 1998 whether the gap between the rich and the poor was a problem that needed to be fixed, 52 percent said yes while 45 percent regarded it as an acceptable part of the economic system. Today, those numbers have flipped: Only 45 percent see the gap as in need of fixing, while 52 percent don’t.
A third Gallup survey (which I wrote about here) asked Americans to state whether they saw big business, big government, or big labor as the biggest threat to the country in the future. In March of 2009, 55 percent felt most threatened by big government and 32 percent by big business. As of December 2011, a near-record 64 percent saw big government as the greatest threat versus on 26 percent for big business. The big change here has occurred among Democrats. In 2009, only 32 percent feared big government the most compared to 52 percent who feared big business. Today, 48 percent of Democrats cite government as their principal fear, up 16 percentage points, while only 44 percent cite big business.
“In short,” Galston writes, “a 2008 election widely regarded as heralding a shift toward the more government-friendly public sentiment of the New Deal and Great Society eras seems to have yielded just the reverse.”
While acknowledging that Mr. Obama can win next year, Galston concludes his analysis by pointing out that “a campaign emphasizing growth and opportunity is more likely to yield a Democratic victory than is a campaign focused on inequality. While the latter will thrill the party’s base, only the former can forge a majority.”
We’re about to find out.