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The Obama Coalition is Still Alive—But For How Long?

Mitt Romney’s recent bounce in the polls has clearly energized conservatives, but it's unlikely to break apart Obama’s re-emerging coalition. The coalition that Obama assembled in 2008—and is relying on again for re-election—includes minorities (not only blacks and Hispanics but also Asians and those of other races), professionals, the highly educated, singles, women (especially in the preceding two categories), seculars, and members of the Millennial generation. (It also includes a chunk of the white working class, albeit a distinct minority.) Prior to the first debate, Obama was matching or coming very close to his 2008 levels of support among all of these groups, and so far it seems that Obama is keeping most of that support.

What is holding this coalition together? The crucial factor isn't anything that Obama has done over the past four years—though he does have some major accomplishments to his name—but rather how appalling the other side is from the perspective of the Obama coalition. From Romney’s clueless rich guy persona to his embrace of hardline GOP positions on immigration, gay marriage and abortion to his adoption of Ayn Randian rhetoric that demonizes 47 percent of the population to budgetary policies that would eviscerate social spending and voucherize Medicare while cutting taxes for the wealthy, there is something in the Romney campaign to offend nearly everyone in the Obama coalition.

It is likely, though not certain, that this view of Romney and the GOP will hold long enough to get Obama re-elected despite Romney’s bold attempts at re-invention. But what can hold this coalition together on a more long-term basis—that is, beyond this election? Assuming Obama does get re-elected, he will have to confront this problem. The good news for him is that there is a simple answer: economic growth and plenty of it. The bad news is that Obama doesn't yet seem inclined to focus on achieving it.

Sustained strong economic growth is something the country has been lacking for quite some time. Consider the growth rate in the quarter century after World War II. From 1947 to 1973, real GDP grew by 4 percent per year, with real family income rising nearly 3 percent per year. This is the growth spurt that really created the American mass middle class. But after the early 1970’s growth slowed significantly, down to a 2.7 percent rate between 1973 and 2011, with of course a massive spike in inequality. And since 2000, growth has been particularly slow, just 1.6 percent per year (this figure incidentally matches the growth rate so far this year). It is difficult for most Americans to move ahead very fast in this constrained economic environment, including especially big swathes of the Obama coalition like blacks, Hispanics, young people, single women and the relatively progressive sector of the white working class. Change that and you have the glue that could hold the coalition together for quite some time.

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There is no lack of policy ideas that could produce such growth. For example, Obama has called for an emphasis on access to education, especially college, the development of new economic sectors like biotechnology and clean energy that can provide high skill, high wage jobs and investment in infrastructure and research that can support rising economic sectors and the transition to a green economy. Indeed, as Michael Grunwald shows in The New New Deal, a good chunk of the much-maligned stimulus bill was intended as a down payment on these ideas. There is good economic evidence that such structural economic improvements could substantially improve the long-term growth rate, as well as bring down high levels of inequality that are undercutting the benefits of growth for most Americans.

Nor does Obama lack ideas for addressing the weak short-term growth and high unemployment that currently plagues the economy. These problems are clearly caused by f inadequate aggregate demand and need to be addressed by the same sort of direct government spending that Obama advocated in the September, 2011 American Jobs Act.

So why isn’t Obama attacking the growth problem head on in this campaign with a clear, specific program that reflects these ideas? Last week's debate with Mitt Romney was just the latest time in the campaign where he passed on an opportunity to do so. The reason is not mysterious: it’s politically difficult to put forward such specifics in a campaign context. To start with, a call for an immediate increase in government spending, however justified in economic terms, would undoubtedly be controversial. And even the president’s long-range plans on education, infrastructure and energy, while individually popular, would invite criticism for their costs.

That is fine for now in the sense that Obama can probably get re-elected without highlighting specific plans for immediate and sustainable growth. The economy is still recovering, albeit slowly, and voters give him credit for getting the country out of a deep economic crisis that they largely blame on his predecessor. Besides, he can talk about his general budgetary and policy priorities, which are broadly popular, in contrast to Romney’s priorities (tax cuts for the rich, massive spending cuts, voucherizing Medicare and rolling back financial regulations), which are broadly unpopular. Obama may not be offering a specific plan for growth but Romney’s approach strikes many voters as a retread of the policies that tanked the economy to begin with.

Given this dynamic, the Obama campaign is probably right that it would lose more than it would gain by specifying a growth plan. But that doesn’t make sustainable growth any less necessary—a reality that Obama will have to confront if he is re-elected. Either he figures out a way to ignite growth and keep it going or his second term could be very difficult indeed. What should concern Democrats even more is that, with continued stagnation, Obama’s coalition is highly likely to erode significantly, starting with his small but critically important share of the white working vote and spreading inwards to his core constituencies of minorities, Millennials, single women, and educated professionals. What could have been a long-lasting shift in favor of Democrats might end up a mere blip.

The temptation of course will be to muddle by and hope that either weak growth will be enough to mollify his voters or that strong growth will appear naturally as the recovery progresses. Neither of these seem like good bets. Worse, it is possible that he will shift his attention to deficit reduction under pressure from the so-called fiscal cliff and the consensus in Washington that the national debt is somehow a much more pressing problem than mass unemployment. That could undercut even the weak growth we have.

Instead, a second Obama administration would be well advised to make growth its number one priority from the moment of his second inauguration. If deals have to be cut with the GOP, it should be with that priority in mind; a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction that does nothing for growth is a political loser. Obama will get little credit for the deficit reduction and plenty of blame for the lack of growth. And the opportunity to consolidate his coalition into a durable political force will be lost.