Last night, I watched economically struggling swing voters react to Obama’s speech and policy proposals in real time. I sat in on a dial session organized by pollster Stan Greenberg’s Democracy Corps, for the advocacy organization Women’s Voices Women Vote, and watched the moment-by-moment responses of more than five dozen voters, all of them white, from the following groups: “Weak partisans” who had a history of voting for both parties; non-college voters; unmarried women; and independents.
These folks (who were from all over the country, and dialed in remotely) were the types of voters who will be the target of an epic argument in the next presidential race over which party has real solutions to stagnating wages and rising inequality — over which party has the more convincing story to tell about what has happened to the American economy, and how far government can and should go in acting to make it work better for everyone.
In his speech, Obama outlined an unapologetically robust — and, yes, redistributive — federal role in enhancing opportunity and economic mobility. He proposed taxing capital gains and inherited wealth to pay for middle class tax relief. He proposed subsidizing expanded free education at the community college level, as befits a 21st Century globalized high-tech economy in which success and higher living standards are ever more dependent on knowledge. He proposed clearing away barriers to work with more child-care funding and paid sick leave; a minimum wage hike to lift millions towards the middle class; and expanded infrastructure investment to put millions to work.
All of these prescriptions were framed around a question: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” Obama noted that Republicans support some of these policies, and that the main disagreement is over how to pay for them — a polite way of arguing that for Republicans, support for middle class tax relief and infrastructure spending evaporates if funding them requires a penny more in revenues from the spectacularly wealthy.
The five dozen dial session participants registered their responses on a scale from “cool negative” to “warm favorable.” Here are some general observations about their reactions:
* They reacted more positively to Obama’s articulation of the economic challenges they still face than to general claims that the recovery is underway. The responses to Obama’s claims that we are “turning the page” and that “the shadow of crisis has passed” were not as quite enthusiastic as he surely hoped. This is in keeping with the fact that polls suggest many of these voters think the recovery is leaving them behind.
They were more enthusiastic when the President addressed the still-broken link between hard work and opportunity, and current difficulties affording childcare, college, health care, and retirement. Those generated spikes in approval from independents and non-college whites.
* Specific policies were received very enthusiastically — more so than general suggestions of a more activist government role. The phrase “middle class economics,” and Obama’s definition of the values that concept embodies, were generally well received by independents and non-college voters, but they did not generate the enthusiasm that such applause lines were designed to elicit.
By contrast, the call for a minimum wage hike generated a big spike among independents; the promise of subsidized child care and more infrastructure investments energized unmarried women; and the call for subsidized community college and an equal pay law generated an enthusiastic response from non-college voters (many of them women). The call for closing loopholes to tax inherited wealth elicited a spike, but notably not as large as the above policies.
* Obama’s trade pitch and Iran rhetoric were not received all that well. Obama’s effort to reframe the argument over the trade deals he is negotiating — he sought to cast them as allowing Americans to write trade rules and open foreign markets to exports — did not generate much enthusiasm, even when he tried to speak to people’s residual anger over past trade deals. His discussion of diplomacy to curb Iran’s nuclear program sparked a notable dip among independents.
* Core liberal priorities were not received all that enthusiastically. The strong applause line about the GOP “I’m not a scientist” dodge did not generate a big approval spike among these voters, and nor did his effort to paint a lurid picture of the profound perils climate change poses. His effort to humanize the plight of immigrants, and call for strong unions, also failed to generate terribly enthusiastic responses.
* Unmarried women were the most receptive to many elements of the Democratic message. This was one of the real surprises: Unmarried women reacted very enthusiastically to a number of sections that other voters cared less about, and this went beyond economic issues: Their approval spiked during the discussion of the historic strides in gay rights; the need for American leadership on climate; and the curbing of health care inflation. And, of course, they reacted very well to the equal pay and child care portions.
“The President laid out a robust agenda to help middle class families, and unmarried women and white working-class women responded incredibly strongly,” Page Gardner, the president of Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, tells me. “They want jobs, equal pay for women, an increased minimum wage and lower taxes for the middle class. His agenda clearly resonated with unmarried women and with the white working class women and families we surveyed last night.”
All this may not be lost on Hillary Clinton and her advisers, who are looking to balance the need to get out the voter groups in Obama’s coalition with an emphasis on their priorities while also doing better among blue collar white women than Obama did.
In a forthcoming memo that also includes post-speech polling that I will post soon, pollster Stan Greenberg offers a conclusion that is both encouraging and cautionary:
The president successfully communicated a strong sense of advocacy for middle class Americans, reflected in big gains on impressions of him as a leader, someone who is on voters’ side, and someone who understands the challenges facing Americans….while post-speech reactions illustrate the positive reception to the President’s policies and agendas, there is still more work to be done. Making this agenda a reality will not be easy in the current political environment, a concept that voters in the focus groups recognize.
But, to the degree that this speech was designed to showcase a new, post-crisis, post-deficit-obsession Democratic agenda — and to contrast it with Republican priorities heading into 2016 — Democrats should be happy with its ambition and content and how it was received, even if the chances that it will exert any pressure on Republicans to move towards it are remote to non-existent.