How President Obama's Economic Message Could Backfire in 2012

If there was anything notable about President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas last week, it was the extent to which he attacked economic inequality in the United States, and its deletrious effects on income mobility:

[O]ver the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.  A few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50–50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult.  By 1980, that chance fell to around 40%.  And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a 1 in 3 chance of making it to the middle class. 

It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal.  But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It’s wrong. It flies in the face of everything we stand for.

This, in essence, is President Obama’s message for the next year, and the Obama campaign hopes that it will appeal to the large swath of voters that the president needs to win reelection. As part of their most recent report, the Pew Economic Mobility Project polled Americans on their attitudes toward their finances, their economic futures, and the broader economic climate. The electoral implications of the poll are obvious; if Americans are receptive to the notion that the wealthy have an unfair advantage, then Obama has every reason to double-down on his populist rhetoric. If they aren’t, then the campaign is in for a little revision.

The results? On one hand, a large majority of Americans believe that the government has a role in promoting upward mobility. 83 percent say that government should either prevent people from falling behind, provide opportunities for them to get ahead, or both. People are also uncertain about their own economic futures, and pessimistic about the chances for their children; only 47 percent say that their kids will enjoy a higher living standard than they did, down from 62 percent in 2009. And in something that will almost certainly warm David Axelrod’s heart, 54 percent say that the government has helped the rich “too much.”

On the other hand, when it comes down to government actually doing something, the public isn’t so enthusiastic. 80 percent of Americans say that the government is doing a poor job of helping poor and middle-class Americans, and 54 percent say that the government is helping the “wrong” people. Moreover, Americans maintain an individualized narrative about the most important things that factor into whether someone gets ahead; hard work, for example, is seen by a large plurality as the most important thing that determines economic success.

The interesting thing about all of this is that it has mixed implications for Obama’s campaign message. A message that focuses too much on the structural causes of inequality—i.e. one that doesn’t spend much time on “personal responsibility”—might alienate voters who aren’t already receptive to it. What’s more, a lot depends on how Americans define the “wrong” people. Pew suggests that we should take that as synonymous with the rich, but I’m not sure if that’s correct. It’s well known that race has a significant effect on support for redistributive policies; programs perceived as helping the “undeserving” (read: African Americans and other minorities) are wildly unpopular when compared to programs that are either universal (like Social Security) or are perceived as helping the middle-class.

This is all speculation, but it’s possible that the president’s message on inequality may backfire with some voters—like working-class whites—who are inclined to take an ethnocentric view of government programs. As long as the benefits flow to them and those like them, they approve. But if they see Obama as trying to redistribute their wealth to those people, then the president is in for a little trouble.