Pinched by a still-sour economy and a deeply pessimistic public, President Obama and his Democratic allies are evincing a sharper, far more populist message as a defense against next year’s Republican charge. Highlighted by a $450 billion jobs proposal in Congress, paid for by taxing the wealthy, they have found a message tailor-made for their traditional base.
But the new tone and, most notably, the emergence of the populist-fueled Occupy Wall Street movement, have some Democrats worried. They are nervous that the president’s rhetoric will alienate key swing voters, and they’re urging a softer tone that they think hews more closely to moderates' views.
The dilemma is an old one for Democrats--as well as Republicans, for that matter. Political parties always have to balance the competing demands of their most fervent base of supporters with their moderate wings. But Democrats face fresh tensions this year because of the perilous state of Obama’s reelection bid and the evident fraying of their coalition, one inherently more dependent on moderates than the GOP coalition.
Some Democratic lawmakers are already carefully crafting their own messages, while taking a cautious course with OWS.
“They’re taking a wait-and-see approach with Occupy Wall Street,” said Lanae Erickson, deputy director of the Social Policy and Politics Program at think tank Third Way. “I think there’s a danger. It’s very difficult for a president to turn an angry populist movement into something positive for a campaign. The last president to do that was probably FDR.”
The president’s populist shift is noteworthy less for its substance — the tax breaks, infrastructure spending, and increased taxes on the wealthy are broadly popular — than for the rhetoric surrounding it. In Obama’s speeches, mixed in with his bottom-line assertions that the math doesn’t add up without extra revenue are populist pleas for “fairness.”
“It’s also about fairness,” he said during a September speech promoting his jobs bill. “It’s about whether we are, in fact, in this together and we’re looking out for one another. We know what’s right. It’s time to do what’s right.”
But Democrats did not rush to embrace the jobs bill. First, there was widespread hesitancy to get behind it before the president outlined how he proposed to pay for it, even among Democrats from liberal-leaning areas. After Obama proposed his pay-fors, some Democratic senators in red states, such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, still voted against the package.
Ostensibly, the public supports job creation and tax increases on the rich. But, in general, voters are never eager to raise taxes. And the political party that champions tax hikes in a struggling economy flirts with danger. “Even if you’re talking about taxing some other group, at some point, voters think, ‘It’s going to come back to me,’” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. “It’s like opening Pandora’s box.”
An August survey conducted by Third Way of 400 “switchers” — voters who supported Obama in 2008 but voted for a Republican in last year’s midterm elections — showed that one of their top concerns about Democrats was their willingness to raise taxes. And those worries pushed these voters toward the Republicans. Most of the swing voters were ideologically closer to the GOP, the survey revealed, even if they were disdainful of the party’s more conservative, tea party elements.
Such voters are unlikely to be swayed by pleas for fairness, Erickson said. “I think Democrats need to emphasize a positive vision for the future, and they can’t meet pessimism with pessimism,” she said. “We have a pretty tough economic environment right now, and they need to show a vision for putting America back on top.”
The biggest obstacle to a coherent Democratic strategy right now is Occupy Wall Street, which is growing in popularity. A CBS News/New York Times poll last week found that 43 percent of respondents agreed with the movement’s goals, compared with just 27 percent who didn’t agree.
But some Democrats are cautious about where the movement is heading, particularly after protesters in Oakland clashed with police this week. Even if the message is popular, some of the movement’s tactics, such as large groups of people camped in tents along busy city thoroughfares, could turn off some moderates.
“You do worry about them marginalizing themselves and the middle of the country looking at them as sort of extremists, or even worse, knuckleheads,” said one Democratic strategist who has advised candidates about dealing with the movement.