Economic Pessimism Threatens Democrats Far More Than Republicans Do

An important poll was released Friday by National Journal, reported by Ron Brownstein here and here. The poll digs deep into people’s economic hopes and fears, uncovering a deep vein of pessimism about the country’s economic trajectory and what that means for the fate of the middle class. This economic pessimism is Obama’s greatest enemy: it can potentially break down the coalition that came together so successfully to re-elect him and it will certainly stymie any efforts that are being made to expand that coalition.

Start with raw economic dissatisfaction. As summarized by Brownstein:

The millennial generation and minorities are much more likely than the public overall to describe their current economic situation as only fair or poor. While 54 percent of the public overall (and just 39 percent of the college white women) put that negative designation on their current economic standing, 63 percent of millennials, 67 percent of African-Americans, and 69 percent of Hispanics say they are struggling…. [I]f minorities and millennials remain this dissatisfied with their economic condition, Democrats will face a growing challenge to maintain through 2016 the lopsided advantages they enjoyed among them in 2012.

In chart form:

That’s bad. And it gets worse. When asked how the middle class is faring today versus their parents’ generation, respondents were far more likely to say things are worse today than better. Brownstein:

Respondents were twice as likely to say the middle class has less, rather than more, opportunity to get ahead today than in their parents’ generation. They were three times more likely to say today’s middle class has less, rather than more, expendable income after paying for expenses. And they were four times as likely to say today’s middle class has less, rather than more, job security than the previous generation.


These are politically toxic sentiments, no doubt fed by our ongoing economic woes. If they continue to deepen, it will become ever more difficult to reach beyond the core Obama coalition (even assuming that coalition can be kept together) and recruit new supporters who believe in change. This is particularly true of the white working class, whose views across a range of indicators are uniformly and strikingly pessimistic.


Start with whether they had reached a higher class position than their parents. Unlike most other groups in the survey, noncollege whites were more likely (36 percent) to say they’d lost ground rather than gained ground (29 percent), relative to their parents. And a stunning 76 percent of white working class respondents over the age of 40 expressed fear that they would fall out of their current economic class over the next few years, including 46 percent who were “very concerned”. Reflecting these fears, 60 percent of non-college whites define being middle class as simply managing not to fall behind (“having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt”) rather than getting ahead (“having the opportunity for financial and professional growth, buying a home, and saving and investing for the future”).

Unsurprisingly, their view of the President and his policies is rather bleak. Just 32 percent of white working class respondents approve of his job performance and a meager 18 percent believe his policies will “increase opportunity for people like you to get ahead.” Efforts to expand the Obama coalition among this demographic seem likely to founder on these sentiments until and unless strong growth returns to the economy and they can envision a future that offers more than a struggle not to fall behind.