As Task Force Debuts, Some Ask: Who Is Middle Class?

Attendees included, from left, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Vice President Biden and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
Attendees included, from left, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Vice President Biden and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). (By Matt Rourke -- Associated Press)
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, .U.S. Census Bureau | The Washington Post - February 28, 2009
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009

PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 27 -- Commentators left and right have reacted with awe to the ambition and transformative potential of President Obama's economic blueprint. But the debut of Vice President Biden's Middle Class Task Force here Friday suggested that the administration will be selling its plans in more conventional and reassuring tones -- as a bevy of benefits for the American middle class.

If there is a revolutionary element to an administration that wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest by nearly $1 trillion, it was hard to discern at the University of Pennsylvania auditorium where the vice president, six Cabinet secretaries, both Pennsylvania senators and three other congressmen, and the host governor and mayor held forth for three hours about the fine points of creating "green jobs," the focus of the first of the sessions Biden will hold this year.

There was little talk of tax increases or long-term deficits. Instead, administration officials spun visions of a whole new industry in weatherproofing and window-manufacturing born as a result of Obama's investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy and his proposed caps on carbon.

"We will measure the success or failure of this administration not merely on whether the economy is technically recovered . . . but on whether the middle class at the end of the day is growing, the middle class is reaping its fair share of growth," Biden said. Obama would "restore to the center of our efforts the middle class that has been long forgotten, out of view and left out of our investments."

Such a strong rhetorical emphasis on the middle class is new for Obama, who campaigned on the theme that the economy had gotten out of balance in recent years but generally avoided appealing to the middle class specifically. His new focus echoes that of President Bill Clinton, who tried to move the Democratic Party beyond the perception that it was mainly out to help the poor.

It is an effective framing, considering that a majority of Americans tell pollsters they consider themselves to be middle class. The White House itself has not ventured an explicit definition of the phrase, beyond making clear that it regards households making $250,000 a year as wealthy. But skeptics at both ends of the political spectrum say it also raises questions about the White House's willingness to speak hard truths, and about the sustainability of the ambitious plans Obama has laid out.

Republicans scoff at Obama's assertion that his tax increases will leave untouched all but the wealthiest 5 percent. There is no way, they say, that he will be able to spend so much on health care, education and energy, and avoid crippling deficits, unless he taxes at least the upper reaches of the "middle class" now protected, partly because those being targeted will find ways to lower their tax bills.

"Their definition of the middle class is not based in reality -- it's almost everyone," said American Enterprise Institute fellow Alex Brill, formerly a chief economist for the House Ways and Means Committee. "Over the long term, you absolutely cannot pay for the government that they want to have from 2 or 3 percent of the population. It's unsustainable."

Some on the left also wonder whether Obama's plans will be feasible without a broader sacrifice, which, in addition to bringing in more revenue, would do more to fulfill his inaugural call for the country to pull together and do what is necessary to rebuild.

John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, said it was understandable for Obama to focus on the middle class, including those well up the income ladder, because angst is so broadly spread. But he said working-class Americans may feel irritation about concerns for the needs of the relatively affluent.

"Working people have a healthy resentment, and it's not just envy. It's that this has been going on for the past few decades for them, and no one gave a [expletive] when this was about blue-collar workers," he said. "You talk to working people, and they say, 'We understand this. We've been through this. Now the others are starting to know the pain, too. But where were they when we needed them?' "

The administration's plans offer much for the poor, such as tax credits for households that pay no income taxes and greatly expanded Pell grants for college. Margy Waller, director of the anti-poverty group Mobility Agenda, praised the expansion of eligibility for unemployment insurance, a way to help the poor that she said is more politically palatable than loosening limits on welfare payments, which some liberals had sought.

But the economic emergency and Obama's political strength have given him an opening to extend tax relief much further up the ladder than was possible for Clinton, who campaigned on a middle-class tax cut but was able to pass only an expansion of the earned-income tax credit for the working poor. Households in the $66,000 to $112,000 income range will see their taxes drop by $1,300 on average, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Bruce Reed, a Clinton adviser now with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said it was a no-brainer for Obama to reduce or hold level taxes for as many more affluent Americans as possible. "I've always argued that our goal is to help the poor and middle class be better off -- it's not to ask them to pay for programs that will in turn make them better off," he said. "When the time comes to solve one fiscal crunch or another, the country will do what it needs to do."

Ruy Teixeira, with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Obama was "smart not to say" who else might be hit down the line if revenue runs low. Even working-class Americans hold out the hope that they might someday earn $200,000. "It's hard to take away tax cuts from people who are even moderately well off. It's a lot easier to do it with people who are recognized as having a lot of money," he said. Obama "is playing it relatively safe, which makes sense."

The tensions within Obama's broad definition of the middle class surfaced at yesterday's meeting, as several speakers urged that green-jobs initiatives be geared toward poor urban youths, while others such as Biden, with his invocations of his home town of Scranton, Pa., seemed to have a different target audience in mind.

But it was overall an exceedingly cordial affair, as the officials traded praise, talked about how much money they were sending to Pennsylvania, and asked each other soft-edged questions about how best to solicit renewable energy loans or train workers in weatherizing buildings. Biden appeared to see his role as assuring audience members about the administration's accountability in spending the $787 billion stimulus package; he barely mentioned this week's budget proposal, calling it "transformational" and a "fundamentally different approach," without elaboration.

Afterward, one audience member, Penn junior Kristina Rochester, said that she appreciated the task force coming to Philadelphia but that she was surprised it hadn't taken any questions. "I felt they were really there to learn," she said, "but it could have been a lot more open."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company