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Why Obama’s New Populism May Sink His Campaign

President Obama’s much-heralded speech in Osawatomie, Kansas focused on inequality, which, he argued, is undermining our prosperity, weakening our democracy, and shrinking our middle class. While there’s a serious data-based argument to be made in favor of that view, recent surveys suggest that most Americans don’t share it. If the speech becomes the thematic template for his reelection campaign, it may well reduce his chances of prevailing in a close race. 

Let me start with a Gallup survey released on December 15, which showed that the number of Americans who see American society as divided into haves and have-nots has decreased significantly since the 2008 election. Back then, 49 percent saw the country as divided along those lines, and 49 percent didn’t. As of this week, only 41 percent see the country as divided between haves and have-nots, while 58 percent do not. (The share of Americans who consider themselves to be “haves” hasn’t budged: 59 percent in 2008, 58 percent today.)

Significantly, most of the reduction in those seeing the country as economically divided has occurred in the middle of the political spectrum. In 2008, 48 percent of independents saw an economic divide; today it’s 37 percent. In 2008, 51 percent of moderates saw a divide, versus only 38 percent now. Liberals are the only group that has become more likely to see a divided society—63 percent in 2008, 66 percent today. While invoking sharpening divisions will thrill them, it may have the opposite effect on the moderates and independents without whose support national Democratic candidates will fail.

Now consider another Gallup survey, this one released on the 16th. Respondents were asked to categorize three economic objectives as extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not important. Here’s what they said:

                                                Extremely/very important          Somewhat/not important

Grow and expand
the economy                                         82                                            18

Increase equality of
opportunity for people to
get ahead                                               70                                            30

Reduce the income and
wealth gap between the
rich and the poor                                  46                                            54

Regardless of partisanship, substantial majorities of Americans saw expanding the economy and increasing equality of opportunity as extremely or very important. Not so for reducing income and wealth gaps—21 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of independents. Only Democrats gave this goal a high priority, by a margin of 72 to 27.

When Gallup asked a sample of Americans in 1998 whether the gap between the rich and the poor was a problem that needed to be fixed, 52 percent said yes, while 45 percent regarded it as an acceptable part of the economic system. Today, those numbers are reversed: Only 45 percent see the gap as in need of fixing, while 52 percent don’t. Again, Democrats are the outliers: 62 percent of them want it fixed, versus 24 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of independents.

A third Gallup survey asked Americans to state whether they saw big business, big government, or big labor as the biggest threat to the country in the future. In March of 2009, 55 percent felt most threatened by big government, and 32 percent by big business.  As of December 2011, a near-record 64 percent saw big government as the greatest threat, versus on 26 percent for big business. As Obama nears the end of his third year in office, the people are more likely to fear government, and less likely to fear business, than they were at the beginning of his administration.

The source of the change is surprising. Republican fear of government, already sky-high in 2009, hasn’t budged, while fear of government among independents has risen only modestly. The big change has occurred among Democrats. In 2009, only 32 percent feared big government the most, compared to 52 percent who feared big business. Today, fully 48 percent of Democrats (up 16 percentage points) cite government as their principal fear, while only 44 percent give business pride of place. In short, a 2008 election widely regarded as heralding a shift toward the more government-friendly public sentiment of the New Deal and Great Society eras seems to have yielded just the reverse.

None of this is to say that Obama can’t win next year. Indeed, if the economy grows a bit more quickly and unemployment falls farther than the standard forecasts predict, he may well prevail. It is to say that a campaign emphasizing growth and opportunity is more likely to yield a Democratic victory than is a campaign focused on inequality. While the latter will thrill the party’s base, only the former can forge a majority.        

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