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Why the President’s Campaign Shouldn’t Focus on Inequality

Editors’ note: No Democratic president has won in recent decades on a platform of economic populism. But with the rhetoric of the 99 percent still in the air, and a proposal for a ‘Fair Share Tax’ at the center of his current platform, it seems President Obama might be attempting to do just that. We’ve asked a number of TNR writers to discuss whether it makes sense for Obama to run as a populist. Can a Democrat win on a populist message? Should Obama try? Click here to read the collected contributions.

Should President Obama run as a populist? It depends—both on what you mean by “populist” and, oddly, on what you mean by “should.” Substantively and morally, there’s a powerful case for an intelligent, evidence-based populist campaign in 2012 that both arouses and informs the American people. But if we understand “should” politically—as the selection of effective means to the end of the president’s reelection—then the question becomes much more complicated. Successful campaigns figure out how to move the public from premises it already accepts to conclusions that boost their candidate’s cause. And right now, the vast majority of the public—the people that Obama needs to convince to vote for him—just don’t care that much about income inequality.

That’s where the meaning of “populist” becomes crucial. The American people believe that the wealthy aren’t paying what they should in taxes, so Obama can make and win the tax fairness argument. They believe that large financial institutions ran amuck at the expense of ordinary Americans and needed to be reined in, so Obama can defend the Dodd-Frank bill—especially the new protections it offers for consumers. And the people believe that the rescue of the auto industry is the domestic equivalent of the mission that killed bin Laden—a gutsy presidential decision that succeeded in the face of widespread skepticism. So the president can turn GM and Chrysler into poster-children for the proposition that government can improve the lives of workers and their families—and dare Mitt Romney to take the other side of the argument.

So far, so good. But making economic inequality the thematic centerpiece of his campaign would be a losing strategy. Just look at the polls. An April NBC/Wall Street Journal survey tested six economic messages that the presidential candidates could adopt. One of them: “What drags down our economy is an ever-widening gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else.” That message ranked dead last; only 45 percent of respondents said that it would make them more likely to vote for the candidate who articulated it. (The more successful messages moved 60 or even 70 percent of the people in the desired direction.)

In January, Gallup examined the public’s evaluation of three different economic strategies. Eighty-two percent of respondents thought that it was extremely or very important to “grow and expand the economy.” Seventy percent thought that it was extremely or very important to “increase the equality of opportunity for people to get ahead if they want to.” But only 46 percent said that about the third strategy: “reduce the income and wealth gap between the rich and the poor.” To be sure, 72 percent of Democrats attached great importance to this strategy. But only 43 percent of Independents did. The populist attack on inequality may rally the base, but it would not improve Obama’s chances among other voters.

That’s because a focus on inequality doesn’t personally resonate for most people. Also in January, Gallup probed public attitudes about the current economic system. Only 45 percent thought it was fundamentally fair, while 49 percent did not. That sounds promising for the populist cause. But then came the next question: Do you think the U.S. economic system is fair or unfair to you personally? Sixty-two percent thought that it was fair to them as individuals; only 36 percent did not. That helps explain why a majority regards current inequalities as “an acceptable part of our economic system.”

And the people who are likely to view inequality as unacceptable are already likely to vote for Obama—including, overwhelmingly, African-Americans. In September of 2011, Pew posed a survey question it had asked many times before: Is American society divided into two groups, the “haves” and the “have-nots”? It turned out that public opinion hasn’t changed significantly since the end of the Clinton administration: About 45 percent say yes, while about 52 percent say no. But attitudes on this question have long divided along racial lines. As of last September, 73 percent of African Americans answered the question in the affirmative, compared to only 40 percent of whites.

This observation points to something that is both crashingly obvious and often overlooked: For political purposes, it doesn’t much matter how an argument is received by people who are sure to support you. What really matters is its effect on voters who may be open to persuasion. And for Obama, that means white voters. Not all whites are swing voters, of course; but the overwhelming majority of swing voters are white. In 2008, Obama got 95 percent of the vote from a highly mobilized African-American constituency. He’ll do about the same this year; he’s maxed out. By contrast, Pew reports, he’s now registering only 39 percent support among whites, versus the 43 percent of their vote he received in 2008. And a message centered on the injustice of income inequality is less likely to convince those voters.

There’s an obvious retort to all this: We don’t have to choose among growth, opportunity, and inequality as economic themes. We can use all three. That’s more or less what Obama did in his Kansas speech, which provided the template for what was to come. It’s a matter of emphasis, not selection. There is, however, a risk with this strategy, at least among swing voters: When the president talks about inequality, it tends to drown out what he says about growth and opportunity, and it tends to confirm the doubts they have about his economic stewardship.

Going on the warpath against “economic royalists” worked for FDR in 1936, but only because a huge majority already approved of his economic performance and had come to trust activist government as a servant of their interests. Obama enjoys neither of these advantages. Indeed, people today are just as negative about the federal government as they are about corporations and wealthy individuals. And Obama’s economic program receives mixed reviews from the electorate.

Fortunately, there is a way for Obama to talk about fairness in without undermining the issues of growth and opportunity that most people care about. Indeed, the president has already done it, starting in Kansas. People believe that the rules should be the same for all and equally enforced on all. They believe that everyone should have a fair chance to succeed. And they are willing to support government programs and regulations that they think will move us toward an equal opportunity society. If Obama wants to win this election, that’s the only kind of populist platform he needs.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.