The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday before President Obama's State of the Union address, and a Democracy Corps focus group polled during the speech, indicate that President Obama wins, and Democrats in Congress will win, with a progressive populist economic agenda. And they need not shy away from highlighting Republican obstruction and wrong-headed priorities.
Respondents to the NBC/Journal poll were loud and clear about what they believed should be the nation's top priority: jobs. Ninety-one percent said that "creating jobs" should be "an absolute priority this year," 17 points above the second-ranked priority, "reducing the federal budget deficit."
The other economic priorities that received more than 50 percent support for being made "an absolute priority" this year included "ensuring all children have access to pre-school education" (63 percent), "closing corporate tax loopholes" (59 percent), "fix and keep the new health care law" (54 percent) and "increasing the minimum wage" (51 percent).
One additional economic priority, "reforming Social Security and Medicare," received 56 percent support. But that wording is ambiguous, and other polls have shown large majorities actually opposing most of the policies that have been offered as "reforms" for these programs, including raising the retirement age, limiting cost-of-living adjustments and privatizing elements of these programs. The policy changes that do resonate with a majority of Americans include increases in Social Security benefits and requiring wealthy wage-earners to pay the same proportion of their income in Social Security taxes as do working-class families.
When President Obama struck the economic populist themes that resonated with voters in polls like the NBC/Journal poll, he did well with a focus group of voters, representing a cross-section of the electorate, that Democracy Corps assembled in Denver for the State of the Union speech.
"He made major gains on having good plans for the economy, looking out for the middle class, and looking out for the interest of women," said a memo released this morning by Democracy Corps and Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund. "And in focus groups following the speech, voters gave him high marks on his push for paycheck fairness, minimum wage, education, student loans, and job training. Even Republicans in our audience responded positively to Obama’s plan for paycheck fairness."
The Democracy Corps group was of 23 female and 21 male swing voters in Denver, split roughly evenly between Democratic and Republican voters. "As voters told us in follow-up focus groups, they were skeptical of the President heading into this speech. But his heavy emphasis on improving the economy at the pocketbook level — especially for women — won these voters over," the memo said.
President Obama got one of the strongest positive responses from this group when he said that the fact that women earn on average only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns in 2014 is "am embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work." Obama also got high marks for supporting an increase in the minimum wage – "no one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty" – and, except among Republicans, for calling to "restore the unemployment insurance you [Congress] let expire for 1.6 million people."
But the memo warned that Obama's selling of the economic recovery under his watch "does not ring true to them." Most working-class voters do not see an economic recovery that benefits them.
But what is also true is that, despite the mainstream media's broad-brush characterization of a generalized "dysfunction in Washington" as the cause of the nation's stalled economy, as the Democracy Corps memo states in its conclusion, "Republicans should not believe that these voters blame both parties equally. They do not."
They do hold conservatives in Congress responsible for putting a thumb on the policy scales to favor the wealthy and to block the initiatives that would help working-class people recover from the economic crash. What they want now is President Obama to fight for them.