Populist fury may not yield electoral edge
When President Obama traveled to Kansas recently and delivered speech full of populist fury at the great concentration of wealth among the country’s richest elite, a great sigh of relief could be heard among Democratic Party loyalists. “At last” was the feeling among leading liberals, who had been feeling increasingly ambivalent about a president who seemed to have gone wobbly on fighting the great fight over income polarization that was becoming the economic story of our time.
It was not just that they felt taking on income inequality was the right thing to do. Many Democrats say the president’s feistier new demeanor is a winning strategy for next year’s election, when they think economically distressed voters will rally behind a bolder Obama who calls out the greedy fat cats who are reaping all the income gains in the country.
But what if that view is just wrong?
William Galston, writing on The New Republic website, says that’s the conclusion he draws based a look at recent polling data. Among the pieces he points to: A Gallup poll released on December 15 that says fewer Americans think the country is divided into haves and have-nots than was the case in 2008. Independents and moderates — the swing voters that are crucial in any election — account for much of the decrease. Also instructive, says Galston, is a comparison of current Gallup results with those from 1998 on the question of whether the gap between the rich and poor is problem that needs to be fixed. In 1998, 52 percent of Americans said yes, while 45 percent said is was an acceptable part of the economic system. Today, he says, those numbers are exactly reversed. Another Gallup survey released week, says Galston, shows Americans rank growing and expanding the economy as much more important than reducing the wealth and income gap between the rich and poor.
MassINC’s latest research report, “Recapturing the American Dream,” released last week, provides evidence of growing income inequality in Massachusetts. According the report, prepared by Northeastern University’s Andrew Sum, income inequality in Massachusetts over the last decade has gone from roughly the middle of the pack to one of the most extreme of any state.
It is tempting to think a direct attack on such trends — and on the policies that may have accelerated them — will be rewarded politically in coming election. Galston draws an important distinction, however, between what may be a “serious data-based argument” that widening income inequality is problem we need to confront and the political mood of moderate voters. If Obama’s Kansas speech “becomes the thematic template for his reelection campaign,” writes Galston, “ it may well reduce his chances of prevailing in a close race.”
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