Liberals have long argued that a message calling for the wealthy to pay their fair share is broadly popular—and indeed, most polls show voters support abstract proposals calling for higher taxes on the rich. But it’s rarely worked in practice. If taxes were raised as part of a comprehensive economic plan raising revenues and cutting spending, that’s one thing. As part of a political argument designed to mobilize the base for his reelection campaign, it’s bound to be received less warmly. The fact that moderate congressional Democrats have been keeping the proposal at arm’s length says more about the plan’s popularity than polls testing different arguments, without context.
In the end, the political law of gravity usually wins out. In its latest survey of political ideology, Gallup found 41 percent of the electorate defining itself as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, and just 21 percent as liberal. Obama’s tax-and-jobs plan has been embraced by the latter group, a sign of how the overall public will perceive it.
When Republicans run to the base, as George W. Bush did in 2004, they’re appealing to a healthy plurality of the country’s electorate. When Democrats do the same, they’re appealing to a much smaller faction.
Part of the administration’s problem is their struggles to think past the week’s news cycle. If they recognized early that the deficit was a growing concern for many Americans, Obama would have backed his own Simpson-Bowles commission deficit-reduction plan, spending some political capital on a touchy issue but taking it off the table and dividing Republicans in the process. Bill Clinton was the master of that type of triangulation.
Or, if Obama paid closer attention to the polls that showed intense American economic anxiety, he may not have been as eager to proclaim earlier this year that he was getting the economy out of the ditch. Not only did he seem tone-deaf at the worst possible time, but it sidetracked the White House from focusing on jobs. If the president pitched a jobs plan focusing on tax-code reform and targeted infrastructure spending, he could have pivoted to jobs while appealing to the center.
These are the types of policies that could win back disaffected independents, frustrated with the slow pace of recovery but eager for the president to show leadership. But the fact that Obama instead unveiled a populist message while his campaign is seeking to win over upscale voters raises the question of whether the White House is in sync with the reelection campaign.