The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is furious over President Obama’s deal with congressional Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts, but the move is likely to go over well with independent voters. To liberals, the president’s agreement to continue the cuts for families whose incomes top $250,000 was heresy. To independents, it was compromise—more like candidate Obama’s promise to “change the way Washington works” than the “my-way-or-the-highway” mentality that has halted progress on so many important problems in recent years.
Independents are the voters who gave Democrats their majorities in 2006 and 2008. This year, independents rather aggressively removed House Democrats from their majority. As nonideologues, independent voters aren’t into pursuing causes or righting wrongs so much as they are into seeking results. Endless bickering doesn’t impress them.
Given the pervasive lack of trust between congressional Republicans and Democrats, it’s not at all clear whether the tax-cut deal is a sign of more compromises to come. Lawmakers tell me they would like to strike some bargains to address the nation’s big problems, but they are reluctant to gamble that the other side will negotiate in good faith.
Liberals seem myopically focused on the fact that a group they hate—the rich—will achieve some benefit from the tax-cut agreement. What many of them fail to appreciate is that the benefits of the deal are real and immediate for many working families. If placating Republicans was the price to pay, so be it.
For the 6.3 million Americans who have been jobless for 27 weeks or longer, the 13-month extension of unemployment benefits will be a godsend. For a family of four with a household income of $70,000, the 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee’s part of the payroll tax will mean a significant $1,400 break.
With unemployment now at 9.8 percent and having stayed above 9.5 percent for 17 of the past 18 months, the country badly needs additional economic stimulus. This payroll-tax break efficiently provides $190 billion more than was otherwise going to happen, and it would go directly into workers’ paychecks. A party so desperately dependent on getting the economy turned around—to furnish any hope of holding onto the White House and the Senate, where 23 Democratic seats are at risk in 2012, compared with only 10 for Republicans—ought to be applauding this deal.
Liberals and conservatives have passion. Moderates and independents have lives.
On Monday night, I had the opportunity to sit behind the glass at a focus group conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart under the auspices of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Hart’s firms had gathered 10 voters from Pennsylvania’s 7th and 8th Congressional Districts, both in suburban Philadelphia. Two Delaware voters, who supported unsuccessful tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell, made the group an even dozen. To be sure, the participants were unenthusiastic about extending the tax cuts for wealthy Americans, but they clearly wanted politicians in Washington to work together and get things done, to be willing to compromise.
The difference in attitude between those focus-group participants and the bloggers on the left and the right, not to mention the conservative and liberal combatants on the cable-news food-fight shows, is striking. Liberals and conservatives have passion. Moderates and independents have lives.
A St. Louis focus group of Wal-Mart moms back in September drove home to me the daily struggle of so many Americans and their frustration with Washington—which they view as somewhere on another planet, totally disconnected from their world. These voters are more concerned with progress than with who gets the political credit. Most of all, they don’t want the perfect to get in the way of the good.
In Philadelphia, whether it was Bob, a 67-year-old independent from Yardley, Pa., who voted for Obama; or Mary Jo, a 47-year-old consulting engineer from Folsum, Pa., and a registered independent who voted for McCain; or Joyce, an independent who works in sales and lives in Middleton, Del.; or Barry, a Republican tour-bus driver from Clayton, Del., the message was that the two parties should spend less time trying to embarrass each other and more time working together.
Although few focus-group participants are rating Obama a rousing success, they are conspicuously devoid of the hate that’s evident on talk radio, cable television, and conservative websites. They consider him a smart, decent, and well-intended family man, one who is new to Washington and has not caught on to its ways as quickly as his backers had hoped. Obama isn’t the success they had wished for and hasn’t been able to do too much so far, but they have not given up on him completely yet.
This article appears in the December 12, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.