By Leo Jennings
Political consultant with Rubenstein Associates
The Center for Working-Class Studies released the results of its latest survey last week. As I look at the results, two things jump out: first, the President is paying a price for doing the right things the wrong way, and second, the conservative pundits like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hanitty, who continually characterize the Tea Party movement as a revolt fueled by a working class fed up with Obama and the liberal elite, haven’t quite been telling the truth.
Neither finding is really surprising. Both may have a profound effect on the nation for decades to come.
To understand why, let’s begin with Mr. Obama. For more than a year liberals have expressed frustration and disappointment with his inability or unwillingness to take advantage of the political capital he accumulated while capturing the White House. His refusal to fully engage in the health care debate until the 11th hour, the decision to focus the economic stimulus package on Wall Street rather than Main Street, his apparent abandonment of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, and a number of other perceived failures have undermined his support among the Democratic Party’s base, including those who participated in the CWCS survey.
Since the first survey was conducted in May of 2009 the president’s approval rating has fallen from 87% to 68% among all respondents and from 87% to 59% among those who identify themselves as belonging to the working class. Although his overall approval rating remains high, Obama and Democratic leaders should be worried about another number: the precipitous drop in the percentage of those who strongly approve of his performance. Among all respondents it fell from 52% to 15%, while among the working class it fell from 48% to 11% — a 37 point drop for both groups.
Just as troubling is the fact that the percentage who strongly disapprove of his work to this point is now equal to the number who strongly approve. For those who identify as working class, the numbers are only slightly more split: 15% strongly disapprove and 11% strongly approve.
The reasons for this considerable softening in Obama’s approval ratings are easily discerned from the responses to other survey questions. While more than 80% of respondents have consistently rated the U.S. economy as bad or very bad, until this survey they also said by large margins that the country was moving in the right direction. Their optimism in the face of the crumbling economy was based in large part on their belief that the President could and would turn the nation around.
That belief has clearly eroded over the past year. Today, the percentage who see the nation moving forward has dropped more than 40%; more respondents now say that things are moving the wrong direction. The sense of unease is greatest among the working class, who now say things are going in the wrong direction by a two-to-one margin: 48% to 24%.
Why has the base’s faith been shaken? More than 55% of working-class respondents say Obama has done less than they expected since taking office. Three-quarters of them believe the stimulus package has been only somewhat or not at all effective, 78% say Wall Street and big business have too much influence over the White House, and only slightly more than 52% believe he cares more about working families than big business.
All of this bodes ill for Democrats because softening support and fading enthusiasm will undoubtedly equate to lower turnout among the base in an election in which the party cannot afford to leave one vote on the table.
Interestingly, though, the working class’s disenchantment with the first year of the Obama presidency has not, as some conservative commentators and pundits would have us believe, driven them toward the “Tea Party” movement. Although Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Anne Coulter, and others on the right continually state that Tea Partiers are “real,” or “average,” or “everyday,” or “working” Americans who are fed up with Obama and the federal government, the results of the CWCS reveal a completely different reality.
For example, 72% of working-class respondents hold an unfavorable or very unfavorable view of the movement that conservative commentators would have us believe they enthusiastically support. Eighty-one percent disagree or strongly disagree with the movement’s stand on political and moral issues, and only nine percent characterized themselves as Tea Party supporters.
And lest those on the right attempt to counter these results by saying the respondents to the survey don’t know or understand what the movement is all about, 93% said they had read about and are familiar with what the Tea Party stands for. The fact is that working-class Americans know what the movement stands for and they resoundingly reject it.
The accuracy of the CWCS results is underscored by data derived from a recent survey of Tea Party supporters conducted by The New York Times and CNN, which shows that movement supporters are married white males who are wealthier and better educated than members of the working class.
This is not to say that the groups don’t share some positions or a discontent with where the country is heading. Members of both groups believe the economy and jobs are the most critical issues the U.S. faces, that the economy is bad, and that the nation is on the wrong track.
Stark differences arise, however, when the groups are asked to identify the causes of the problems and their most likely solutions. While a vast majority of Tea Partiers believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, they, unlike members of the working class, believe the economy is getting better. Their discomfort with America’s future is based on their distrust of Washington. Ninety-six percent say the federal government rarely does the right thing, 75% say Obama does not share their values, 56% say the administration’s policies favor the poor, and 73% would favor cuts to Medicare and Social Security in order to reduce the size of government.
Most significantly, 76% of Tea Party supporters believe the government should reduce the deficit rather than spend money to create jobs. More than 77% of the working class believes just the opposite—they want the government to fuel the economy regardless of the effect on the deficit.
With these findings in mind, Mr. Obama and the Democrats need not fear that substantial portions of the party’s base will join the Tea Party. The ideological gulf between the two groups is far too wide. What they should fear, as the latest survey clearly shows, is that, in the immortal words of Pogo, the Dems have met the enemy and “He is us.” Doing whatever is necessary to improve the economy between now and November in order to reenergize the party’s base should be the primary concern of the administration and Congressional Democrats. Failure to accomplish that mission rather than opposition from an inconsequential movement like the Tea Partiers, will spell doom for the Democrats.
Leo Jennings has worked with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters.
This blog was re-posted from the Working Class Perspectives site