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02.26.10

Obama's Middle-Class Meltdown

By cozying up to Wall Street and pushing climate change, the president is playing to the coasts—and losing Middle America. Joel Kotkin on the Dems’ disconnect—and the GOP’s problems exploiting it.

The rapid decline in public support for Democrats and President Obama represents one of the most breathtaking political collapses in modern times. Little over a year from a huge electoral triumph, President Obama’s level of support has dropped from around 65 percent to less than 50 percent. The Democrats in Congress, who held as much as a 10 percent edge over the Republicans last spring, actually are losing a “generic” vote.

Ultimately, the party that wins in 2010 and beyond will be the one that addresses the real issues of this age—the battle for private-sector jobs and upward mobility—that matter to the vast majority of Americans.

Many Republicans and conservatives may think this represents a confirmation of their values. Yet in reality, the Democratic meltdown has less to do with belated admiration for the GOP—their support as a party remains at historically low levels—than with the massive disconnect between the people in power and the large, middle-class majority.  

The Great Disconnect reflects a growing chasm between the normative “wisdom” within political parties and their aligned media, academic, and policy cadres. The Disconnect in part derives from the tendency of politicos and their associates to converse mostly with each other—and not develop much of a direct feel for that vast, and increasingly complex, country beyond the Beltway.

As president, Barack Obama’s Great Disconnect seems most obvious. Although he occasionally uses populist middle-class rhetoric, both Obama’s priorities and body language suggest his inspiration comes largely from the rarefied world of the universities and Democratic Party contributors.

Not surprising then that he started with a stimulus package that offered little to private-sector Main Street businesses. Instead, the primary beneficiaries turned out to be Wall Street grandees, whose high salaries he variously denounces and excuses, and public-employee unions.

Obama’s move was encouraged by the aging leadership of the Democratic Party, shaped by places like Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco and Henry Waxman’s lushly affluent Beverly Hills. It has little to do with the views of the middle class, who generally reside in smaller towns and less-than-tony suburbs.

President Obama’s other key constituency lies in the public-sector unions, whose power in his home state of Illinois now rivals and perhaps surpasses that of the Daley machine. Even as middle-class voters see their pensions dwindle along with their housing prices and jobs, the public sector has waxed into something resembling the Blue Meanie in Yellow Submarine, consuming everything in sight, and ultimately itself.

Perhaps nothing so illustrates the Great Disconnect than the president and the congressional lions' embrace of the radical green climate-change agenda. Still popular in upper-class urban areas and university towns, this agenda is notably less well-supported in middle and working-class communities, particularly in the middle of the country.

Even before the Climategate revelations—which led to one top warmist figure admitting to the BBC that there had been in fact “no statistically significant” warming over the past 15 years—the agenda was losing support, ranking it dead last among 20 priorities in a Pew survey last year. Now they are becoming openly skeptical, with support for the notion of primarily human-caused warming falling since April from 47 to 35 percent.

President Obama must realize that prioritization of the climate agenda, along with other coastal liberal priorities, undermines Democratic support in the Great Plains and the Great Lakes, where the president's party recently had been making some significant gains. The recent withdrawals of Senators Byron Dorgan and Evan Bayh reflect the Democrats’ growing vulnerability in these regions. Recent polls in Iowa, where Obama won his signature primary victory in 2008, show the president’s popularity at less than 50 percent, in large part due to losses among independent voters.

Yet if Americans have been departing the Democrats, does it follow that they will shift en masse to the GOP? There is reason for skepticism here as well. After all, this is the same party that, along with the Democrats, supported massive spending under George W. Bush and actively promoted the disastrous deregulation of the financial markets. The prescience of the likes of former Majority Leader Dick Armey—a co-conspirator in the Bush era’s profligacy—at the forefront of the Tea Parties should worry even the most credulous small-government activist.

The Republican claim to the populist mantle is even more suspect. Republicans like House Minority Leader John Boehner have cozied up to Wall Street, hoping to take advantage of rising “buyer’s remorse” among the grandees. Suggesting Republicans could shield the financial sector from even modest Democrat efforts to make them face consequences for their loathsome and disastrous folly, they unintentionally show that their critique of the president’s “crony capitalism” largely involves shifting the identity of the cronies.

The Republicans also have a bit of a demographic problem. Their Neanderthal stance on social issues diverges radically from the rising millennial generation, and threatens to alienate them permanently. And perhaps even more seriously, the strong nativist wing of the party, epitomized by Tea Party keynoter and former Representative Tom Tancredo, represents a threat to the other large emerging voting bloc: immigrants and their offspring.

If you want to see an illustration of what this means, just examine the plummeting GOP registration levels in increasingly multiracial California. For the first time in modern history, according to veteran political observer Allan Hoffenblum, there is not a single congressional, state senate, or assembly district in the state with a majority Republican registration.

Although the Republicans are riding high now, do not overestimate their ability to seize the field now so ineptly being vacated by the Democrats. It may well turn out that President Obama still may overcome the Great Disconnect before the GOP does. Obama’s ability to change direction already can be seen in such things as his newfound enthusiasm for nuclear power and more drilling on public lands. His most recent jobs bill also has more of a focus on promoting private employment growth than past efforts.

Ultimately, the party that wins in 2010 and beyond will be the one that addresses the real issues of this age—the battle for private-sector jobs and upward mobility—that matter to the vast majority of Americans. It is on those issues—not global warming, ethnic purity, or gay marriage —that the political future will now turn.

Joel Kotkin is Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California, and an adjunct fellow with the Legatum Institute in London. His new book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, is available now from the Penguin Press.