President Obama’s latest makeover casts him as a middle-class warrior — a campaign theme his team thinks will resonate with voters in 2012.
After struggling to find a winning message, the president has amped up his role as defender of the middle class and been rewarded with his highest bounce in the polls in months.
Observers say it’s no coincidence, crediting Obama’s sharpened populist pitch — in which he unveiled the American Jobs Act and stood his ground during the payroll tax cut extension stalemate — as a major part of his spike in popularity.
To be sure, congressional Republicans who bickered and botched that end-of-year debate deserve some credit for the president’s bounce.
Obama’s approval numbers rose five percentage points to 47 percent, according to Gallup’s polling, immediately after House Republicans disastrously opposed a Senate deal extending a payroll tax cut for two months.
But the decision to cast Obama as a supporter of higher taxes on the rich and lower taxes on the middle class, which has brought about accusations of class warfare from Republicans, is also paying dividends judging from polls.
For three years, Obama and the White House were accused of muddling their message. Now the president “has settled on a message of middle class support,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University and the author of the book Pursuing the American Dream: Opportunity and Exclusion Over Four Centuries. “And he’s been pursuing it systematically.”
The White House, Jillson added, “found a good theme. They’re onto something here.”
When respondents in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll were asked who they trusted more to protect the middle class, Obama beat out Republicans in Congress 50 percent to 35 percent.
The poll told a similar story when it came to Independents: 49 percent trusted Obama to help with the middle class, while 32 percent said they thought congressional Republicans had their best interests at heart. A CBS poll out last week also showed that six in 10 Americans say Congress should increase taxes for Americans who earn more than $1 million annually. (The poll indicates that 35 percent oppose a tax hike for millionaires.)
Martin Sweet, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, said the president’s message works because “Most people conceptualize themselves of the middle class.”
“And so if you can be the champion of the middle class, that’s terrific,” Sweet said. “It’s a slam dunk.”
Earlier this month, in what White House aides labeled a “major address,” Obama hammered home the populist argument before a packed high-school gym in a small, working-class Kansas town.
“This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class,” Obama said in the speech, near the place where Theodore Roosevelt issued his call for a “New Nationalism” more than 100 years earlier. “At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement.”
Obama’s critics aren’t buying him as a middle-class warrior, however.
Asked for his response to Obama’s speech at the time, Mitt Romney, a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, said, “I thought, ‘in what way is he like Teddy Roosevelt?’ Teddy Roosevelt founded the Bull Moose Party. One of those words applies when the president talks about how he’s helped the economy."
Appearing on a panel on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Kathleen Parker, the nationally syndicated columnist, argued that the middle-class strategy will hurt Obama as he enters his reelection year.
“I think this narrative of the class warfare … that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, it pits Americans against each other and it is frankly un-American,” Parker said. “I don’t think it’s going to work for him.”
Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, who appeared on the Sunday talk show alongside Parker, added, “I think most Americans want to get into that top 10 percent by the way … and that’s why it doesn’t play.”
Still, Jillson said Obama’s Kansas speech in particular was effective because it emphasized a distinct vision at a time when there’s a concern in the United States that the middle class is being “hollowed out.”
“It focused the president’s attention and was relatively well received,” he said.
White House and campaign aides acknowledge that the middle-class message is working, and they say Obama will continue to use the message heading into his reelection bid.
“The president has made clear that this is a make or break moment for the middle class,” an Obama campaign aide said. “The central question of the election will be which candidate will restore economic security for the middle class.”
In the Kansas speech, the president referred to the “middle class” more than two dozen times, drawing a very distinct line between the wealthy and the working class.
“Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent. One percent,” Obama said.
“That is the height of unfairness. It is wrong,” he continued, to applause from the crowd. “It’s wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker — maybe [earning] $50,000 a year — should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50 million.”
“This isn’t about class warfare,” he added, appearing to predict what his opponents might say. “This is about the nation’s welfare.”
Jillson said he expects Obama to keep hammering home this message as the presidential election heats up.
"I do think it’s a very important message for the President and for Democrats because they’re not going to win 2012 just with their base,” he said. “They’re going to have pull Independents and moderates back and win large numbers of them. It’s important that they do that and it’s important that they do that well."
After all, Jillson added, “You can win reelection at 47 percent but you don’t want to try it.”