Dig into the numbers of the latest Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University poll on the recession and race and it’s easy to see how the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have blown it on winning the allegiance of the white working class.
The core failure is not what the inside-the-Beltway punditocracy says it is—big spending, bigger government and the biggest-ever deficits—but a failure to be seen as consistently championing the interests of the middle class.
That comes through particularly starkly in a set of questions in which nearly 2,000 respondents are asked when it comes to looking out for the economic interests of certain groups, “do you think that the Obama administration is doing too much, too little or about the right amount?”
Just over half of whites said that the Obama administration was doing too little for “you and your family” and 58 percent said the administration was doing too little for “middle-class Americans.” But 48 percent said that Obama was doing too much for “Wall Street financial institutions” and 44 percent said that the administration was doing too much for “wealthy Americans, the upper class.”
It is true that in this survey, “the federal budget deficit” emerges as the top concern of white voters (27 percent), with the job situation ranking third (20 percent) behind the cost of health care (21 percent). [The job situation is ranked as the top concern of blacks (36 percent) and Hispanics (37 percent).]
But it is these voters who also feel the most pessimistic about the future of the economy, The Washington Post’s story about the poll says. And that raises the question of whether the priority placed on the deficit by these respondents is a reflection of how thoroughly the right has dominated the messaging around government spending, even by Democrats.
Ask voters to go beyond the bumper-sticker sloganeering, and voters will embrace populist and progressive approaches to growing the economy and reducing the deficit—and reject the “slasher-movie economics” being practiced by congressional Republicans.
In a Democracy Corps poll taken earlier this month, 59 percent of respondents said they would be “much more” or “somewhat more” confident in Democrats who espoused this message: “We must start by cutting wasteful and unnecessary spending, but before we cut middle class programs, we need to close tax loopholes, end subsidies for oil companies, and make government more accountable to people, not the special interests that dominate Washington.”
A Democratic message that included a pledge to “help those who work hard and played by the rules” and spend “less money for bailouts and subsidies for CEOs that ship jobs overseas” made 54 percent of respondents “much” or “somewhat” more supportive of the progressive position.
The Democracy Corps survey results were not broken down by race, but 74 percent of the respondents in that poll were white.
What both polls show is that the beleaguered voters who allowed the Tea Party wave to wash over them and into Washington were—and are—open to a different, more progressive message.
Part of that message must be a plan to create solid jobs that will fuel the growth of the middle class and keep America competitive in the new economy.
Many of the white people who expressed such pessimism in the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll know what they lost. Many remember first-hand that America had a strong manufacturing sector until conservative policies starting in the 1980s set the stage for the dissipation of that sector. They saw that the promise of a “knowledge economy” that would replace the jobs that corporations outsourced overseas was illusory, as was the promise that the tax cuts of the past decade would lead to broad middle-class prosperity. In fact, during the past decade the middle class lost wealth even before the bursting of the Wall Street bubble destroyed even more of their wealth.
This month’s poll numbers should actually encourage the White House and progressives in Congress to put forth a bold agenda: Prioritize putting Americans back to work in the short term. Reorient the economy in the long run toward the industries of the future. Spend money on what’s needed to support economic growth: good schools, good roads, a faster rail network, telecommunications capacity that enables business anywhere in America to compete with businesses anywhere in the world. Instead of punishing public employees, enlist them in the necessary effort to make government more efficient and accountable.
Working-class Americans of all skin colors are looking for political leaders who will be their champions. If communications vehicles such as this blog does its work well, they will learn soon enough that most of the extreme-right candidates they elected in November will end up being champions of the millionaires and billionaires who bankrolled their campaigns and fund the groups that crank out their talking points. As that realization dawns, elected officials should step forward with a progressive populist vision if they want to recapture the political momentum.
The Campaign for America’s Future is sponsoring “The Summit on Jobs and America’s Future” March 10 in Washington. Go to ourfuture.org/jobsummit to learn more and register.