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He Doesn't Feel Your Pain

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The senior citizen vote overlaps to some extent with the white working class vote, but it has a special importance because these voters come out disproportionately in midterm elections. If the Democrats continue to lose the senior vote, as Coakley appears to have done in Massachusetts yesterday, they will get clobbered in November 2010. We’re not talking two or three senate seats, but as many as eight, and not 20 or 25 House seats, but maybe between 30 and 40. To avoid a calamity on that level, Democrats will have to answer a difficult question: Why have these two groups distanced themselves in the last year, and particularly in the last few months, from Obama and the party?

These two groups of voters have not viewed Obama’s presidency in a fundamentally different way from many other voters, but they, and particularly working class whites, have been the prime source of a populist anger against the Obama administration. They have perceived Obama as robbing Peter to pay Paul--or more concretely, taking benefits from and imposing higher taxes on them in order to provide greater income and benefits to others. And we are talking here about perceptions. I don’t intend to get into an argument about what is actually in the various health plans, some of which do benefit senior citizens and the white working and middle class.

Working class populism in America has always taken two forms: The first--let’s call it leftwing populism--has typically been directed at speculators who make money from people who work in factories and offices and who don’t seem to contribute to the actual wealth of society. The second form--let’s call it rightwing populism--has targeted immigrants, black sharecroppers, the unemployed, and other out groups who are seen as trying to deprive those who work of their rightful earnings. These two strains often appear together, as they did in the original American populist movement. And these sentiments are most concentrated among the embattled classes--those that see themselves threatened from above and below.

Obama has provoked both leftwing and rightwing populism. He provoked leftwing populism by using tax dollars to sustain the banks and auto companies and to reward their managers who had already shown themselves to be incompetent--and then by acquiescing when the bankers paid themselves additional bonuses. In a poll taken in early January by Allstate/National Journal, 1,200 respondents revealed whom they thought had “benefited most” from the government’s response to the financial crisis. Banks, investment companies, major corporations, and the wealthy were way out in front.

Obama’s health care plan has provoked a combination of rightwing and leftwing populism. The middle class and senior citizens see it as a program that taxes and takes benefits away from them in order to help those without insurance--the out groups--and to enrich the insurance companies themselves. They didn’t invent this perception out of thin air: It derived in part from the plan to tax “Cadillac” health care plans (which are sometimes held by unionized middle class workers), penalize workers who don’t buy insurance,  and cut future Medicare spending, while providing new subscribers and profits for the insurance companies. Undoubtedly, the prior perception of Obama’s financial policies reinforced these suspicions about his health care plan, which is now as unpopular as the bank bailout. In Obama’s speech in Massachusetts last Sunday for Coakley, he relegated his health care policies to two passing references to insurance companies.

Is this political failure Obama’s fault? I have made the argument that Obama’s declining approval can be attributed to the rising rate of unemployment and that the only way he could have prevented, or eased, the fall in his popularity would have been to get Congress to adopt a much larger stimulus program last winter. I still think there is truth to that argument--and also to the riposte that with the current congress of Republican nihilists and Democratic deficit hawks it would have been impossible to get a much larger stimulus. But I think that there is more to Obama’s problems that than original sin of the insufficiently large stimulus program.

I updated the graph that I did last fall to illustrate the close correlation between unemployment rate and presidential approval or disapproval. What I found in Obama’s case is that at the beginning of last fall, when Washington began debating his health care plan in earnest, his level of disapproval began to exceed the rise in the unemployment rate. (See chart below)


Of course, there is nothing particularly scientific about this finding, but it at least suggests that Obama’s political problems can’t be entirely laid at the foot of the Great Recession. Beyond that, one has to look at how the administration has conducted itself politically.


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