Is President Obama’s populist-tinged contrast with Mitt Romney effective? If you pay attention to today’s Washington Post poll, it probably is. The poll asks which is the bigger problem: unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy, or over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity? Fifty-six percent of Americans say unfairness, 34 percent over-regulation.
Now, just what this proves is up for debate. There has been a steady drumbeat of centrist pundits warning that Obama’s frame won’t work, that Americans aren’t worried about fairness, and he has thus defined himself out of the economic mainstream. See William Galston, Clive Crook, and Josh Kraushaar, among others. (The latter two cited a poll by Third Way, a centrist advocacy group dedicated to demonstrating that Democrats should adopt pro-business positions.)
The centrist can certainly find polls that back up their position. The point isn’t that the Post poll is correct. The point is that most Americans have vague and often contradictory beliefs, and different formulations can produce radically different response. Given that Obama is stuck with an economy recovering from the deepest economic crisis in 80 years and an opposition party fanatically dedicated to protecting the rich and opposing any legislative compromise, it seems to me that some form of populist contrast is the only way for him to go.