[Obama is] connecting to progressive populism with an aggressive, spending-oriented, activist government approach to the economy personified by Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. Obama’s already backed raising the minimum wage, the start of what White House officials say will be a 2014 domestic agenda — including his State of the Union address and budget — that centers around income inequality and what the government is doing to increase economic mobility.
Obama needs his base invested to help him recover from his low poll numbers and give his party a platform as Democrats try to make the House competitive and hold onto to their majority in the Senate. And those in the coalition that won Obama two elections — young people, African-Americans, Latinos, single women and immigrants — are precisely the ones hit hardest by the doldrum economy.
Will this strategy succeed? The answer would seem to hinge on three things.
- Success in shifting the focus from the sluggish economy (e.g., the “jobs deficit,” problems of long-term unemployment, dramatic reductions in the labor force participation rate) to inequality in income distributions and the claim that these inequalities (rather than economic policy or the intrinsic problems of recovering from a financial crisis) have impeded recovery.
- Success in convincing voters that the correct policy response to this situation is an expansion of social policy expenditures (e.g., increases in Social Security) and a higher minimum wage
- Success in convincing voters that they should, in essence, vote themselves a raise in the 2014 midterm elections since there are limits to what can be achieved through executive action.
I am skeptical that this strategy will succeed for a host of reasons (e.g., the contours of public opinion, the likelihood that ongoing problems with Obamacare implementation will dominate the news, the President’s lack of follow through on priorities announced in the State of the Union). But given the poor economic performance since the financial collapse there is likely a growing pool of desperate voters open to these claims. They may apply a sufficiently high discount rate to the future that the long-term fiscal consequences of expanded social policy expenditures will not matter much.
For those who are interested in reading more, see Alex Pareene, “Why Elizabeth Warren Baffles Pundits” (Salon), Frank James, “Is Economic Populism a Problem or a Solution for Democrats?” (NPR) and Third Way’s John Cowan and Jim Kessler’s op-ed (WSJ), “Economic Populism is Dead”