The Washington Post

In battle for middle class, all of Washington is losing

Gutting Obamacare was the central proposal leading to Tuesday’s government shutdown, but as the debate unfolded lawmakers also sang a sacred Washington hymn. Democrats and Republicans once again tried to cast themselves as the guardians of the middle class.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Consider the following:

In his marathon filibuster on the Senate floor, Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) accused Obamacare six times of bringing an end to the 40-hour work week, “the backbone of the American middle class” – a point echoed 16 hours into the speech by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Last Friday, President Obama admonished congressional Republicans for wasting energy posturing over funding the government instead of focusing on policies to advance the middle class.

On Thursday, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) characterized furloughed federal employees as “mostly middle class and struggling to get by like so many other Americans.”

The public is unconvinced that this show of empathy means that politicians really are looking out for the middle class. A Washington Post-Miller Center poll released Sunday finds the American people give failing grades to both sides.

When asked about whether or not they were doing a good job in “offering real solutions to help the middle class,” 62 percent consider the Republican Party either “not too good” or “not good at all.” The Democratic Party is not far behind, with 55 percent in the two negative categories. Among those with incomes between $50,000 to $100,000 – the heart of the middle class – the numbers are even more damning.  Fifty-eight percent rate the Democratic Party negatively, while two-thirds (66 percent) give similar marks to Republicans.

Perhaps most surprising, President Obama, even after a series of major speeches in recent weeks championing his middle class agenda, is judged poorly by a majority (52 percent) of Americans in offering real solutions for the middle class. Following the trend, the numbers are worse among people making 50 to 100 thousand annually, where 58 percent give the President a negative score.

For all of the rhetoric directed toward this highly-courted demographic, policymakers have been unable to arrest the slow and painful decline of America’s middle class over the past 40 years – a trend exacerbated by the Great Recession. Wages have stagnated, wealth has plummeted, debt continues to mount, the cost of key middle class items – health care, housing, and education – have risen faster than wages, and optimism is in short supply.

Fairly or not, Washington is taking the blame. When the Post-Miller poll asked who is at fault for the lack of good-paying jobs in the U.S., the top response is “elected leaders in Washington who don’t work together.” An astounding 88 percent answer that way.

Washington Post-Miller Center poll - Sept. 6-12, 2013.

On what is most important to help America remain economically competitive, the public responded decidedly against government action. With the exception of improvements in public schools (which, continuing along its historic trend, 80 percent deem important), federal involvement earned the lowest marks. Three choices began with the words “government investment in…”, and these three options (on investments in technology, infrastructure, and manufacturing) receive the lowest scores.

When asked what would be the most important thing to help you achieve the American Dream, low taxes (i.e. reducing the size of government) led the pack with 28 percent, including 30 percent within the $50,000 to $100,000 income bracket.

The middle class is looking for solutions. And they have lost confidence in our nation’s leaders in Washington to provide them.

As precarious as the current situation is, even stronger headwinds are on the horizon, with new technologies promising to further transform our world.  As they have throughout history, technology has the potential to increase inequality and marginalize those not among the small percentage of so-called "winners". Forward thinking and sound leadership is imperative if the middle class is to avoid another lost decade.

Some of this leadership will – and necessarily must – come from actors outside the Beltway. University systems, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, private enterprise, and advocates all have a role to play in rebuilding the model for the middle class to thrive in America. But this cannot be done despite a dysfunctional government.

America is a forgiving nation and trust can always be restored. But according to the American people, both parties have a lot of work to do.

Jeffrey L. Chidester  is the Director of Policy Programs and Corporate Secretary at University of Virginia's Miller Center.

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