By Robert A. Vella
During the first half of this year, Obama shifted from income inequality to the more politically palatable theme of lifting the middle class, focusing on issues such as the minimum wage and the gender pay gap that are thought to resonate with a broader group of voters.
The pivot is striking for a president who identified inequality as one of his top concerns after his reelection, calling it “a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.”
The shift also underscores the ongoing dispute between the Democratic Party’s liberal and moderate wings over how to address inequality issues. Whereas the left takes a more combative tone, seeking to focus on the income gap and what it views as the harmful influence of big business and Wall Street, more centrist forces in the party favor an emphasis on less-divisive issues.
White House officials say the change in the president’s rhetoric was driven by a desire to focus not just on the problem — economic inequality — but also on solutions that could address it. Others close to the White House contend that the move is at least partly driven by Democratic polling that found that talking about income inequality does not register strongly with the American public and risks accusations of class warfare.
The last part of the excerpt – suggesting that the American people do not feel strongly about income inequality – reveals the current mindset of the Democratic Party leadership, but it does not reflect the mood of the public. Americans are really angry about the widening gap between the very rich and everyone else. A Gallup poll conducted in January showed that 67% of all respondents said they were either “very dissatisfied” or “somewhat dissatisfied” with the level of income and wealth distribution in the U.S. including 54% of Republicans. A Field Poll published this week in California told a similar story:
By a 54% to 38% Californians say they are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in California. This view is shared by similar proportions of Democrats as Republicans and by majorities of both liberals and conservatives. Dissatisfaction is reported by virtually all age, income and gender subgroups of the state’s adult population.
The largest differences of opinion about this issue are between Californians who were born in the U.S. and those who were not. By a two-to-one margin (60% to 32%) U.S.-born Californians report being dissatisfied with the distribution of income and wealth. By contrast, Californians born outside the U.S. are more likely to say they are satisfied than dissatisfied.
Even though Democrats, Independents, and Republicans disagree about how to solve income inequality, there’s little disagreement about the existence of the problem. So, what’s going on here? Why is the Democratic Party leadership throwing-in-the-towel, so to speak, on this issue?
Firstly, the primary concern for Democrats this year is to hold onto the U.S. Senate. Should they fail, Republicans would have control over both houses of congress. That would end whatever slim chances remain for immigration reform and other pending issues. Furthermore, it would embolden the GOP to revisit their government shutdown and financial default tactics used previously in budget battles with the White House, and stymie further presidential appointments including any to the U.S. Supreme Court. It could also renew partisan calls for impeachment.
A look at the Senate election map for 2014 would justify their concern. Democrats are defending some 14 seats in conservative, swing, and tight-race states which could easily be won by Republican candidates in typically low-turnout midterm elections like 2014 (the GOP needs a net gain of 6 seats to take control). Instead of trying to motivate the public with a strong economic populist message, the Democratic Party is putting all its eggs in one little basket by appealing to moderate and centrist voters who might react negatively to the GOP’s Tea Party-induced right-wing extremism.
Secondly, there is good indication that the Democratic Party leadership doesn’t particularly like the idea of economic populism. President Obama’s inexplicable support for very unpopular trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would only exacerbate the problem of income inequality in America, are prime examples. Additionally, both the Obama and Clinton administrations were quite accommodating to Wall Street interests – if not completely in bed with them as Republican administrations have been.
In military jargon, the order of battle has been set for 2014. The Dems’ egregiously weak electoral strategy is to patronize the squishy middle of the electorate while hoping that women and Latinos are stimulated to vote by Republicans’ anti-abortion and anti-immigration policies. Forget about Millennials, they will stay home this year. In other words, they are hoping the GOP self-destructs. Cynical? Yes. Smart? We’ll see.