If Obama Moves Right He Loses Everybody -- and Everybody Loses

A new poll on jobs and the economy has a clear message for the president and his party: Stand up for jobs, and protect Social Security and Medicare. The results couldn't be clearer. But is the White House even listening?
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The latest Democracy Corps/Campaign For America's Future poll on jobs and the economy has a clear message for the president and his party: Stand up for jobs, and protect Social Security and Medicare. The results couldn't be clearer. Yet it's still rumored that the president's State of the Union will emphasize deficit reduction over job creation, and the White House has refused to assure worried Democrats that the president won't also propose cuts to Social Security.

How many polls will it take to convince the White House that this is political suicide? How many expert analyses will it take to persuade them that its premature to make deficits the priority when the country desperately needs jobs and economic growth?

The latest poll is based on interviews with 1,480 people who voted in 2008, and was conducted January 9 - 12. It strongly reinforces the findings of earlier polls: Voters overwhelmingly want their government to emphasize job creation and economic growth over deficit reduction, and they are opposed to cutting Social Security or Medicare. The bottom line? The president's in danger of moving in a direction that will lose everybody he needs. Literally every demographic group he and his party needs will be alienated by a right-leaning set of policies.

Voters Today

Here's how the picture looks today, by demographic group:

Young voters will be considerably less eager to support Barack Obama in 2012, except in the unlikely event that his opponent is Sarah Palin. While he wins 64 percent to 29 percent of the youth vote in a match-up against Palin (which tellingly isn't even as great as his poll showing against McCain), he only wins 54 percent of the youth vote against Mitt Romney, who hasn't even begun to campaign.

Support for Congressional Democrats among young voters is plunging, as the 63-18 percent difference drops to 50-39 percent in a hypothetical 2012 match-up. And these numbers don't capture the lost intensity of support, either.

After the 2008 election, the Obama team boasted that it had built an independent, youth-based team around its Internet lists that it could mobilize to win future elections. But the number of young voters plunged by more than half in 2010. 51 percent of voters aged 18-29 showed up in 2008, and that number plummeted to 20.4 percent last November. That's even fewer than voted in 2006. The party's lead in union households, another Democratic stronghold, has dropped from 37 points to 18 points.

The president and the party still have some very strong relationships: suburban voters, unmarried women, and African Americans are still very solid. And the president's negatives have dropped sharply since the election. But two core constituencies, the young and union members, are crumbling.

The picture's even bleaker among key groups of swing voters. Congressional Democrats are trailing by 23 points among white non-college voters, and Obama's losing them to Sarah Palin by 22 points (and to Romney by 21). Obama's losing white seniors to Palin by 8 points, to Romney by 25 points, and other Democrats are losing them by 16 points. Congressional Democrats are losing rural non-South white voters by 31 points, and Obama trails both Palin and Romney (losing to Romney by 26 points).

So the question becomes, what should the president and Congressional Democrats do -- and what shouldn't they do -- to improve their electoral chances?

The Way Out

The answer, as it turns out, is: The right thing. The rumored priorities for the State of the Union are exactly the opposite of voters' priorities. When asked to name the two biggest problems right now, the overwhelming answer was "jobs and the economy." Unemployment and outsourcing ranked first and second, with a total of 74 percent of respondents placing them in the top two. "Deficits" were included by only 18 percent; 18 percent said "wages have not kept up with the cost of living," and 17 percent said "the economy is not growing." The total blend of answers paints the picture of a country devastated by job loss and economic setbacks.

In a similarly-structured question, 46 percent said Congress' top priority should be "economic recovery and jobs," 34 percent said "protecting Social Security and Medicare," and only 15 percent said "reducing the size of the budget deficit." Another 14 percent included "investing in new infrastructure and new industries" as one of their two top priorities.

Should Social Security benefits be cut? White seniors said no, by 48 percent to 36 percent, and the "don't cut" voters felt much more strongly about their position. White non-college voters said "don't cut" by 55 percent to 35 percent. Voters in districts that turned Republican in 2010 opposed cuts by 57 percent to 34 percent. Even suburban voters were opposed, 60 percent-34 percent.

The voters were strongly in favor (57 percent) of "a plan to invest in new industries and rebuild the country over the next five years." By contrast, only 52 percent approved of "a plan to dramatically reduce the deficit over the next five years," and with less intensity of support than expressed by those who wanted investment.

Other ideas sound good to voters until they're told what's involved: They liked the idea of adopting the recommendations of a "bipartisan deficit commission," supporting it 56 percent to 19 percent. But when they were told what the recommendations were, they opposed them by 54 percent to 34 percent. 55 percent were opposed to raising the retirement age and 57 percent were opposed to reducing benefits for people now entering the workforce.

Would this be a "move to the middle"? 52 percent of independents and 55 percent of Republicans oppose raising the retirement age. People under 50 oppose it by a 22-point margin, women oppose it by a 19-point margin, suburbanites oppose it by a 14-point margin, and people in districts the GOP picked up last year opposed it by 14 points. For other benefit cuts the opposition was even greater. The margins were 25 for under-50's, 27 points for women, 26 points for suburban voters, and 23 points in GOP pick-up districts.

So why are we still talking about this?

Warning Signs

These poll results show that a rightward move at the State of the Union would be disastrous, yet the signs are ominous. Robert Gibbs has indicated several times that deficit reduction will be a major theme of the speech. Now Christina Romer, a former administration economics official, is pushing the deficit line. In a New York Times op-ed called "What Obama Should Say About the Deficit," Dr. Romer writes today that "My hope is that the centerpiece of the speech will be a comprehensive plan for dealing with the long-run budget deficit."

Romer continues: "The recommendations of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that the president created are a very good place to start." That's wrong on two counts: The bipartisan Commission never issued recommendations -- it couldn't reach the required majority -- and the recommendations of its' two co-chairs are harmful, anti-growth, and (as the polling has showed) extremely unpopular.

This is the same Christina Romer who wrote another op-ed only ten weeks ago, also in the Times, called "Now Isn't the Time to Cut the Deficit." Is this reversal the sign of some internal administration shift? Now Dr. Romer says that "the need for such a bold plan is urgent -- both politically and economically. Voters made it clear last November that they were fed up with red ink." (No, they didn't, as this and many other polls have shown. This was a protest vote, more than anything else.)

Why are deficits "urgent" economically? Dr. Romer explains: "At some point -- likely well before 2035 -- investors would revolt and the United States would be unable to borrow."

Jobless Americans might be stunned to learned that a possible investor revolt sometime within the next quarter-century, based on hypothetical scenarios, is more "urgent" than they are. Many economists would be equally surprised to learn that Dr. Romer doesn't consider economic growth an effective way to cut the deficit.

Many of the president's advisors will argue that there's a new political calculus and that he no longer has the horsepower to get spending measures through Congress. They'll also point out that voters say they want cooperation and civility. Okay. But why can't you explain what you believe will work? And since when did articulating an economic policy or defending Social Security become "uncooperative"?

The Moment Before

If the president moves to the right in this way, it would be a deeply cynical strategy -- one that sacrifices his party and everything it's represented for 75 years in order to win on celebrity likability and post-partisan "branding." Worse, from his point of view, we now know it probably wouldn't work. The numbers aren't there. He would be proposing the wrong policies, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.

And if the president's advisors think that a deal on Social Security or deficits would give him the same boost that the tax deal did, they'd be sadly mistaken. The tax deal, whatever its flaws, put money in everybody's pockets. Social Security cuts and austerity economics would take money out of those pockets. Sure, Republicans would cut a deal. Then they'd use it against him in 2012. Large segments of his base would turn away from him, or just stay home. Swing voters would register their disapproval of the deal by turning on him, as the public face of the "grand compromise."

We're in a strange historical moment. The president's about to give a speech that will define the future of his presidency -- and our own personal futures -- yet nobody knows what he will say. That's odd and disturbing. For those who want to see the administration defend Social Security and strive to rebuild the economy, Washington seems to be moving in slow-motion. It's like the scene in a science-fiction movie right before a world-changing event. You know the scene I mean, the one where the sky grows dark and the wind rises and everything becomes silent.

You don't know exactly what's coming. But you know that afterwards nothing will ever be the same.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at "rjeskow@ourfuture.org."

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