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The Middle Class and the Political Center

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In the State of the Union address tonight, Barack Obama can set the stage for a political comeback from 2010's "shellacking" that would, in fact, be even stronger than Bill Clinton's storied comeback in 1996 -- because Obama has a chance to sweep a Democratic House back into office with him if he does the right things politically and policy-wise. However, he has to resist the siren call of a D.C. political and media establishment, with their deeply flawed version of what "centrism" is, and instead focus on the real center of American politics: the hard-pressed middle class. He has to focus like a laser beam on the policies that help the middle class by creating new jobs, rebuilding the American manufacturing base, helping small business to grow, and preserving the parts of government that directly help the folks in that middle class: Social Security, Medicare, education and student loans, and rebuilding our roads and bridges.

It is certainly unsurprising after all my years in politics -- in fact, it is the most predictable thing in the world -- to see the D.C. version of centrists argue in favor of things that would damage, and politically anger, the middle class. Nevertheless, it has been disturbing to see what groups like Third Way are calling for in their recent policy memoranda: cuts in Social Security and handing legal bailouts to the big banks so that it will be easier for them to foreclose on homeowners. Other D.C. establishment centrists like Alice Rivlin of the Brookings Institution are calling for Democrats to willingly accept big cuts and/or a private voucher program for Medicare. D.C. establishment folks think Democrats shouldn't press so hard to safeguard consumers from the banking industry.

Here's the thing that is stunningly obvious from all the available polling data, though: voters, most especially swing voters, hate the idea of policies that do even more damage to their already shaky economic standing. As pollster Guy Molyneux from Hart Research Associates so eloquently put it recently: "When it comes to Social Security, opinion elites are from Mars, voters are from Venus." In fact, pollsters like Molyneux, Stan Greenberg, and Celinda Lake argue that Obama's willingness to put Social Security cuts "on the table" has done as much to damage him as any other issue. Thank goodness he has decided not to endorse cutting Social Security or raising the retirement age in the SOTU. Hopefully this will help him stop the bleeding with seniors and other Americans violently opposed to Social Security cuts (which is most of the population).

Every poll I've seen shows voters overwhelmingly hate the idea of Social Security and Medicare cuts, and of raising the retirement age. Every poll I've seen shows voters want the government to rein in the big banks and protect consumers. Every poll I've seen shows that voters want government to help American manufacturers gain protection from unfair competition abroad, want to stop outsourcing, and want to invest in infrastructure and education. The D.C. centrists never seem to quote polling numbers when advocating cutting Social Security or legal bailouts for big banks or policies that promote outsourcing, simply because no such polling exists. None. Yet they still argue that this kind of "moving to the center" will solve all of Obama's problems.

There's a telling sequence of questions in the last Democracy Corps poll that came out last week. When asked a generic question about the Deficit Commission proposals with no details except for that the plan would cut the deficit by $4 trillion dollars by 2020, folks were enthusiastic, supporting it 57-19. When the very next question in the poll gave a three-sentence description of the major policies actually proposed, the numbers went to 34 percent in favor and 54 percent opposed. So it was plus-38 when it came to cutting the deficit generically, and minus-20 when you spelled out cuts in Social Security, raising the retirement age, and other key components of the plan. Want another example? On a contrast question in the same poll where a strong pro-deficit commission argument was laid in contrast to an argument for investing in education, infrastructure, research, and "a clear plan to make things in America once more," the pro-investment argument won 58-35.

These D.C. centrists need to take just one minute and focus on what the white middle-class swing voters -- who they claim to be obsessing about -- actually want. As I wrote right after the 2010 election:

Check out these numbers from a Stan Greenberg poll done for the Campaign for America's Future. Stan did a careful analysis of which voters were the key swing voters, and what he found is striking:
  • Swing voters supported a message about challenging China on trade, ending subsidies to corporations that send jobs overseas, and stopping NAFTA-like trade deals over a message about increasing exports, passing more trade agreements, and getting government out of the way by 59-28
  • Swing voters supported a message about ending tax cuts for those making over $250,0000 a year, adding a bank tax to curb speculative trading, cutting wasteful military spending and ending subsidies to oil companies over a message about cutting 100 billion dollars from domestic programs, raising the Social Security retirement age, and turning Medicare into a voucher program by 51-37
  • Swing voters supported a statement about politicians keeping their hands off Social Security and Medicare over a statement about raising the retirement age by 62-36
  • 89% of swing voters supported a statement about full disclosure of campaign donations and limiting the power of lobbyists
  • 90% of swing voters supported a statement about cracking down on outsourcing and creating jobs by fixing schools, sewers, and roads in disrepair
  • Even when framed in direct opposition to a statement about stopping increasing government spending and tax increases, swing voters said they were more worried that we will fail to make the investments we need to create jobs and strengthen the economy by 54-44.

Now, I think it is important to note something here about the polling I am seeing: Swing voters are swing for a reason. They do not respond as well to the same fire and brimstone purely progressive/populist message I would delight in. Swing voters are very skeptical of government and new taxes; they think there is a lot of waste in government, and need to be convinced that Democrats want to be accountable for cutting that waste; and although they hate the big banks and are very skeptical of corporate power over government, a lot of them work for big companies and get nervous when all they hear is corporation bashing. In the DCorps poll, a purely progressive contrast message attacking tax cuts for the rich and corporations compared to the same pro-deficit commission message that I mentioned above was only in a statistical dead heat rather than winning 58-35 as it did regarding the investment in jobs message.

The focus when talking about economics needs to be on jobs, and on fighting for the middle class. Democrats need to be entrepreneurial populists. We should be pro-small business, pro-manufacturer, pro-technology company, willing to help get the banks to invest in businesses, and willing to reduce paperwork and regulations for small businesses, tech companies and manufacturers as long as their workers, consumers, and the environment are not hurt in the process. We can do all that while fighting the big banks who are speculating and giving themselves big bonuses while not lending to the Main Street businesses that are actually creating jobs; we can do all that while taking on the big insurers who have been making the health care system dysfunctional for everybody; we can do all that while challenging the big oil and coal companies to clean up their act.

In the SOTU address, President Obama has a great opportunity to reframe the entire debate, changing it from the broad philosophical Republican talking points about cutting spending and the size of government, and moving it to focusing on what is the best thing to do for the great American middle class. In his speech, he should clearly lay out a strong, unequivocal pro-middle class agenda:
  1. He should go a step further than just not endorsing the deficit Commission's suggested Social Security and Medicare cuts: he should make 100 percent clear that under no circumstances will he support cutting Social Security, privatizing Medicare, or raising the retirement age. He should lay down the gauntlet and announce that he will veto any bill that comes to his desk that does any of those things.
  2. He should make as the central policy platform of his speech a bold new plan to create middle class jobs, including new spending on roads, bridges, research and development, expanding access to the best technology for everyone, and education; new help for small business to get loans from banks hoarding their profits; and creating a new plan for developing new manufacturing sectors in green jobs and other industries of the future. To fund these new programs, he should call for a financial transactions tax, so that the speculative bankers who did so much to cause our economic crisis can help pay for getting us back on track.
  3. He should make clear that he going to be taking on the banks, pushing them hard to invest in American businesses and to write down the mortgages of middle-class homeowners whose mortgages are underwater.
  4. He should show the American public that he is absolutely serious about rooting out government waste by reforming wasteful government contracting; ending corporate subsidies to big energy and agribusiness companies; allowing Medicare to negotiate cheaper drug prices; and cutting waste in the military budget.
  5. He should announce that his new Chief of Staff Bill Daley and his new Economic Adviser Jeff Immelt, two figures who know the business community well, are going to sit down with every CEO of a Fortune 500 company which is making profits right now to discuss how they can do more to create American jobs over the next couple of years.

As the pragmatic progressive that I am, I have absolutely no problem with rhetorical moves to the center in terms of showing how the deficit can be cut and how waste can be removed from the budget, or showing how the administration is eager to help small business and American manufacturing companies prosper, because a Democratic president can do those things while still holding true to progressive values. What I would have a problem is moving to the Washington center, a well-off elite that supports cuts in the Social and Medicare that middle-class retirees count on, and that supports legal bailouts for the big banks in helping them foreclose on middle class homeowners faster. The people in this country understand what the D.C. establishment, dominated by its big business lobbyists and corporate-funded think tanks, doesn't get: that the budget can move toward being balanced; that new jobs can be created; that the big banks can be said no to -- all without cuts to Social Security and Medicare or the other things in the federal budget important to them.

President Obama has been appointing a lot of people close to big business lately, but I'm not going to care if he shows that he is going to come out fighting for the real center in American politics -- the middle class.