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Obama and the Democrats must reconnect with working-class voters

By Joan C. Williams
Sunday, September 26, 2010; B05

At a forum Monday on jobs and the economy, a 30-year-old recent law school graduate who said he had been inspired by President Obama posed a straightforward question. It seemed to stump the president.

"Is the American dream dead for me?" he asked.

Obama's reply was strangely bloodless. He talked about people who were "treading water," but then he got bogged down in details about student loans. He didn't seem to connect with the frustration and pain he was hearing.

With even the president's fans talking to him this way, it's no surprise that the Democrats are in trouble as the midterm elections approach. The party seems incapable of getting its message across to a key group of voters: those who feel that the American dream is out of their reach.

Where the Democrats are failing to connect, the tea party is succeeding. That rising conservative movement has been extraordinarily good at tapping into the fury of American families who are neither rich nor poor, whose median income is $64,000 and who make up more than half of the nation's households.

For two generations, the Democrats have failed to relate to white working-class voters. Black working-class voters never abandoned the party, but the percentage of working-class whites who identified as Democrats fell from 60 percent in the mid-1970s to 40 percent in the mid-1990s. George W. Bush won his two presidential elections with landslides among white working-class men, while Obama lost among white working-class voters by 18 percentage points in 2008, roughly the same margin by which Al Gore lost them in 2000.

Democrats need to understand why Republicans have been so successful at courting working-class whites -- and why Democrats have been consistently unable to do so. Let's start with the tea party's battle cry to "restore America."

Restore what, exactly? For two generations after World War II, a blue-collar man could support his family; buy a house, car and washing machine; and send his kids to good public schools. The typical blue-collar household in 1973 was more than twice as well off as the equivalent household 25 years earlier. With the economy booming, the Democrats focused on universal social programs and provided Social Security, unemployment insurance, VA and FHA mortgages, educational benefits for veterans, good public schools and universities, and Medicare.

Then the economy shifted. The wages of high-school-educated men fell by nearly a fourth in the 1980s and 1990s. Family income fell less, but only because families sent wives into the labor force. While this was happening, the Democrats' social justice concerns moved away from universal economic entitlements and toward race, gender, the environment and gay rights.

When Democrats did address economic hardship, they focused on the poor through programs such as welfare, housing subsidies, Head Start and Medicaid. These programs mean that "the have-a-littles fight the have-nots" -- a description that a Brooklyn lawyer in the 1970s gave Jonathan Rieder in his book "Canarsie." A working-class housewife added: "The taxes go to the poor, not to us. . . . The middle-income people are carrying the cost of liberal social programs on their backs." That captures the enduring divide between working class voters and the Democratic Party.

In a country where it is so difficult to pass any social program, it may seem sensible to focus on the neediest. But politically, that has proved shortsighted -- a program for the poor alone is a poor program. Everyone likes universal initiatives; that's why trimming Social Security is the third rail of American politics. But means-tested programs, aimed at the poorest, fuel class conflict. Republicans have forged the idea that "the taxes go to the poor, not to us" into a full-blown attack on government. The tea party's "tea," of course, stands for "taxed enough already."

Remember the famous "Get your government hands off my Medicare" signs, toted unironically at rallies against health-care reform? Americans may hate "government," but they like government programs that help them. Designing programs to give subsidies to the poor, but nothing to working-class families who are also struggling, is a recipe for conflict. The Democrats fell into this trap yet again in the health-care debate, when they kept celebrating how many Americans would gain health insurance. Meanwhile, the Republicans maneuvered them into admitting that they would trim the fat from Medicare. The Democrats' message played right into the well-worn theme that they were going to take from the have-a-littles and lavish attention on the have-nots.

While Republicans have made working-class resentments a powerful weapon for achieving the policy goals of the business elite, Democrats have inadvertently fueled those resentments. For more than a generation, a substantial class and cultural gap has tripped up progressive politicians.

Salad greens have been a big problem for Democrats. Michael Dukakis got into trouble over Belgian endive; Obama over arugula. Both Howard Dean and Obama have tried, and failed, to speak about working-class voters' values without sounding condescending. During his campaign, for instance, Obama once noted that working-class families were distressed by their economic free fall -- and then he stumbled straight into the culture gap as he talked about voters' attitudes toward guns and religion.

Democratic leaders can't seem to speak to working-class concerns in a way that doesn't alienate the very people they're trying to reach. Having ceded this cultural ground, they need to win it back.

Workers value directness as an expression of personal integrity. Obama's silver tongue highlights his elite education, while Sarah Palin's inarticulateness confirms her working-class bona fides. Remember when she wrote notes on her hand? She was just waiting for the elite to make fun of her -- a trap the president's press secretary obligingly fell into.

Republicans destroyed the New Deal coalition by appealing explicitly to white working-class culture in many instances, from Richard Nixon's talk about urban crime to George W. Bush's talk about family values. Democrats need to find ways to express their genuine and deep respect for working-class morality, something they can do without abandoning key commitments on issues such as same-sex marriage and the environment.

Democrats must show that they understand the pain and angst of the working class. They need to remind people that health-care reform wasn't about the poorest of the poor -- they were already covered. Rather, the effort was aimed at working families who couldn't afford care.

Watching Obama campaign in 2008, you'd never have guessed that a central challenge of his presidency would be figuring out how to connect with people. At that town hall Monday, a woman named Velma Hart told the president she was exhausted. "I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class," she said. "I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir."

She's still waiting for a good response. Hart later told reporters that she'd hoped for something "magical, very powerful" from Obama and that she was disappointed in his answer.

The president can't wave a magic wand and restore retirement savings or reduce unemployment. But he can make Hart, and millions like her, see that they have his attention and have engaged his imagination. That's all she wanted, really, as she explained in cable news interviews after the town hall: to know that he's thinking about people like her and wants to talk. President Obama and his team should be able to do that.

williams@uchastings.edu

Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, is the author of "Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter."

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