The Public Likes Populism

At the same time that liberals have praised President Obama for his embrace of populist rhetoric, mainstream pundits have attacked him for “divisiveness.” In October, David Brooks criticized Obama’s newfound populism as “misguided”—“It repels independents,” he wrote—and more recently, William Galston warned that his focus on inequality “may well reduce his chances of prevailing in a close race.”

And while it’s true that the Democratic base loves this rhetoric, it’s also true that it has a home among moderate and independent voters, who are increasingly uncomfortable with the income stratification of American society. In a recent poll from CBS News and The New York Times, 55 percent of Americans agreed with the Democratic contention that the rich pay less than their fair share in taxes. And while 52 percent of Americans believe that capital gains and dividends should be taxed at the same rate as ordinary income, this amounts to a significantly higher tax rate than the status quo—especially if, like Mitt Romney, you receive large sums of money from capital gains and dividends.

Likewise, a new poll from the Pew Research Service shows that the public is taking the White House message to heart. 55 percent of registered voters say that President Obama understands the problems of average Americans very or fairly well. By contrast, only 39 percent say the same of the former Massachusetts governor.

If there’s a problem for Obama, it’s that the public is most concerned with jobs, and the White House has yet to provide a clear connection between income inequality and high unemployment. More importantly, the public isn’t entirely convinced that the system is unfair. According to Gallup, more than 62 percent of Americans believe that the economic system is fair for them personally. As Gallup’s Frank Newport points out, this isn’t great for the president’s reelection message:

“Obama’s re-election strategy—focusing on an assumption that the U.S. economic system in this country is unfair and needs to be fixed – will unfold in an environment in which many Americans already believe the system is fair.”