With inequality and economic populism expected to be central to Obama’s State of the Union speech and Dem campaigns in the midterms, expect Republicans to argue Dems are wielding a familiar “class warfare” weapon to distract from the failure of the “Obummer economy.”

But a new Pew poll digs into public opinion on inequality in a way I haven’t seen before, and it suggests Dems are on solid political ground with this focus. Large majorities think the gap between the rich and “everyone else” has grown (65 percent) and that government should act to reduce that gap (69 percent). This is crucial:

When asked what would do more to reduce poverty, 54% of all Americans say raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations in order to expand programs for the poor. Fewer (35%) believe that lowering taxes on the wealthy to encourage investment and economic growth would be the more effective approach.

The key here is that the question does not ask whether we should raise taxes on the rich to pay down the deficit, as many other polls do. Respondents are asked if we should raise taxes on the rich to expand the safety net as a way to reduce poverty, and a majority says Yes — far more than saying the best way to help the poor is by cutting taxes on the job creators.

Independents agree with this by 51-36. Only Republicans favor lowering taxes on the job creators over taxing the rich to expand programs for the poor, by 59-29.

The poll also shows the public rejects the GOP Hammock Theory of Poverty — the idea that the safety net lulls people into dependency. Forty-nine percent think government aid to the poor “does more good than harm because people can’t get out of poverty until basic needs are met,” versus 44 percent who think it does “more harm than good by making people too dependent on government.”

Independents favor the pro-safety net argument by 49-46. Only Republicans agree with the Hammock Theory (by 65 percent!), while a scant 28 of Republicans see poverty as a resources problem – perhaps constraining GOP officials from offering a real poverty agenda that spends money to help the poor.

On individual policies, 73 percent favor raising the minimum wage and 63 percent back extending unemployment benefits for a year.

All of this is rooted in views of the economy, the Pew poll suggests. Sixty percent of Americans believe it “unfairly favors the wealthy,” versus only 36 percent who say the “economic system is generally fair to most Americans.” Independents agree by 60-35. Again Republicans are alone, seeing the economy as generally fair rather than unfairly favoring the wealthy by 53-42.

Yes, people tell pollsters they hate “government” and “spending.” But put these things in the context of the safety net, inequality, and economic fairness, and opinion shifts. Other polls have shown this, too.

People on both sides — for different reasons — have argued that the focus on inequality distracts from the focus we really need, on job creation. But as Paul Krugman notes, focusing on inequality and the safety net is a good gateway into the broader debate over the economy. It pulls the conversation away from deficits — away from slashing government and taxes to unleash the awesome power of the market to cure all our ills — and towards the need to relax austerity and even (let’s hope) government action to create jobs. The Pew poll suggests this is right. After all, it shows broad public support for, yes, redistributionist policy to help alleviate poverty.

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* PANEL DECLARES NSA DATA COLLECTION MUST END: The Post reports:

An independent executive branch board has concluded that the National Security Agency’s long-running program to collect billions of Americans’ phone records is illegal and should end. In a strongly worded report to be issued Thursday, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said that the statute upon which the program was based, Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, “does not provide an adequate basis to support this program.”

This, combined with the report’s stark finding that the program has never once made a real difference in a counter-terror investigation, could upend the debate, conceivably putting some more spine in lawmakers to push for an end to the program.

* DEMS SEEK TO DIVIDE THE TEA PARTY: Chuck Schumer will lay out the strategy today:

Schumer, one of the Democrats’ most influential strategists, will argue in a major speech on Thursday that super-wealthy Tea Party donors have hijacked the grassroots movement that grew out of the economic anxiety of the 2008 financial collapse to suit their pro-big business agenda…Schumer will argue that Democrats must defend popular government programs such as extended unemployment benefits and student loan subsidies to persuade Tea Party voters that they can benefit from federal programs.  

“He will suggest specific issues for Democrats to focus on in 2014 in order to remind the Tea Party and its supporters that government can be a force for good,” his office said.

The gamble is based on the idea — reflected in the Pew poll above — that Republican views of the proper role of government and the safety net, having been pulled to the right by the Tea Party’s influence, are at odds with the middle of the country’s views of inequality and the need for government action to combat it.

* CONTROL OF SENATE IS A TOSS UP: Prognosticator Larry Sabato boils it down:

We now favor Republicans in four Democratic-held seats: Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, as well as — in a ratings change — Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor (D) appears to be at least a slight underdog to Rep. Tom Cotton (R) in a reddening state. Assuming Republicans can win those, they have roughly even odds to win in three other states where there are Democratic incumbents: Alaska, which we’ve long classified as a Toss-up, and Louisiana and North Carolina, which we’re switching back to Toss-ups after having them in that category  for much of last year. It’s possible that the race for the Senate will come down to these three Toss-ups, with the party that wins at least two of the three controlling the Senate.

All of which is a reminder of the importance of Kentucky and Georgia. If Dems can somehow pick one of those off, Republicans may have to oust a prohibitive number of Dem incumbents to win the Senate.

* HOUSE GOP MULLS LEGALIZATION PROPOSALS: Roll Call has a good report on the equivocating and hand-wringing among House Republicans as they debate whether to act on immigration reform. This jumps out:

The good news for immigration overhaul advocates is that more and more GOP lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum appear to be growing receptive to giving undocumented immigrants a chance to receive legal status.

Again: If Republicans are willing to contemplate unclogging existing legal channels to citizenship — which would not constitute the “special pathway” conservatives hate — there might be the making of a compromise.

* CHRISTIE’S TROUBLES CONTINUE TO DEEPEN: This one is eye-opening:

Federal authorities in New Jersey have interviewed several witnesses who said the mayor of Hoboken told them in May about a state official’s threat to withhold hurricane recovery funds if the mayor did not support a development project favored by the governor, people briefed on the matter said on Wednesday. The statements by the witnesses, two of whom are aides to the mayor, Dawn Zimmer, support the account she gave to federal prosecutors on Sunday…

By the way, kudos to Steve Kornacki for breaking the Zimmer story.

* AIPAC’S GRIP ON THE DEBATE WEAKENING? National Journal argues that the seeming loss of momentum for the Iran sanctions bill suggests a shift in the debate against the idea that any position that can be caricatured as anti-Israel is automatically politically toxic. Yes, momentum really has stalled, but the bill’s prospects could be revived at any moment if something goes awry in the talks.

* AND THE FALSEHOOD OF THE DAY, OBAMACARE DERANGEMENT EDITION: Glenn Kessler punctures a GOP Senator’s claim that 10 times as many people have lost insurance as have gained it under Obamacare. But the key here is that the broader argument Republicans widely make along these lines is utterly ridiculous:

Any sort of ratio comparing canceled plans to plans obtained on the Obamacare exchanges is inherently misleading. As we have previously noted, many people who received notices that their plans were canceled were told they would be automatically enrolled into another plan by the same insurance company. So they were part of the group of people who “had their insurance canceled,” they still ended up with private insurance anyway — just not through the exchanges.

It’s another way the current GOP stance on Obamacare could end up getting swamped by the implementation of the law over time.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.