In the 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama is defining himself in terms of economic fairness. The word “fair” was used nine times in the State of the Union Address, and symbols of economic inequality were on full display (including Warren Buffett’s secretary, an invited guest).
Is the public receptive to the inequality message? A recent NY Times blog post lays out some recent polling data from Pew and Gallup. There has been a clear shift in public opinion, but lots of subtlety in which messages resonate with different electorates. Here is a summary of some key patterns.
Growing Perceptions of Class Conflict Among All Groups
In 2009 and 2011 Pew asked respondents in a phone survey about the degree to which conflicts existed between different groups – rich and poor, old and young, immigrants and native born, and black and white. In 2009, 47 percent of respondents said that there were “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between rich and poor, but by 2011, 66 percent perceived this conflict, a 19-point increase.
The major spike is not surprising given the sudden blitz of media attention around Occupy Wall Street. The growth in perceived conflict was greatest among whites (black and Hispanics were more likely to already perceive class conflict in 2009), but the growth was uniform among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. There was also a noticeable increase in the perception of other kinds of conflict (for example, a ten point increase in percent perceiving conflict between old and young, which may reflect awareness that federal programs for the elderly are a target for future cuts).
Perceiving conflict does not necessarily mean that respondents are sympathetic to messages about inequality, although in the Pew survey respondents that perceived conflict were also more likely to believe that the wealthy achieved their status through family connections and inheritance than through hard work and ambition.
It’s Still the Economy, Stupid
When respondents are asked about what issues they believe the government should tackle, support is still overwhelmingly focused on economic recovery rather than to “increase the equality of opportunity for people to get ahead if they want to.” In a Gallup survey, large majorities (71-91 percent) of all political affiliations want government to focus on growing and expanding the economy. Support for promoting opportunity is about 20 points lower across the spectrum on average. Support is very low (21 percent) among Republicans reducing the inequality between rich and poor, and 72 percent among Democrats.
One surprising finding is that a slight majority of Americans now say that inequalities are an acceptable part of the economic system (52 percent), compared to the last poll in 1998 when 45 percent of respondents endorsed this statement. (The small sample size of the survey means that this difference may be on the edge of sampling error, however).
A Winning Message?
What is a winning message on inequality for progressives in 2012? As I have said, a window of opportunity has been created by Occupy Wall Street to begin a national dialogue about economic inequality. Judging from President Obama’s State of the Union speech, he clearly believes that tax fairness is a winning issue. It may well be. If Mitt Romney emerges as the Republican front-runner there will be plenty of scope to use Romney as a powerful symbol of how the ultra rich are not paying their fair share, and this message will likely resonate with voters anxious about how to resolve the budgetary impasse. I predict that the Republican message about “not taxing the job creators” will become increasingly stale and out of touch in the coming months.
What about a larger conversation about protecting labor and changing the working conditions of the middle class? Here, I think Republicans will continue to turn the message away from Democrats, and toward their narrative about greedy unions that are making industry less competitive and bankrupting states. This battle will be waged in the states, and it is worth continuing to watch the battlegrounds in the Midwest (especially the recall of the governor in Wisconsin). This could also be an important year for the worker’s movement. To make an effective pitch, progressives need powerful symbols of workers such as firefighters and teachers that are being played as pawns in state budget politics.
Finally, Obama’s message that budget cutting should not undermine smart investments in education and the workforce will need to be coupled with a strong economic narrative about growth and competitiveness. Beyond scaremongering about a (largely fictional) Chinese economic menace, voters will need positive reasons to believe that investing in human capital nationally will yield payoffs over a shorter period of time. It’s a tough message to sell: when people are still worried about staying in their houses and jobs, they may not want to think about building the workforce of tomorrow.