If the 2012 election is a referendum on how the economy is treating average Americans, should Romney be concerned?
Mitt Romney's declaration that he wasn't concerned about "the very poor" was lampooned by Republicans and Democrats alike this week. But his next statement in a CNN interview is the one that could determine the fate of his candidacy. "I'm concerned about the very heart of America," Romney said, adding later: "My focus is on middle-income Americans."
With astonishing speed, the 2012 presidential election is becoming a referendum on how best to help the American middle class. So far, Romney's solutions are likely to be far more pleasing to the Republican base than the general electorate.
Reduce corporate taxes by 25 percent. Increase oil and gas drilling. Repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. Cut non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent. Weaken unions. And reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent.
Where, Democrats contend, is the benefit to the middle class?
The conservative answer reflects the yawning ideological gap that will become more apparent in the months ahead. While Obama and Democrats call for the federal government -- and society as a whole -- to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to increase their social mobility, Romney and Republicans concentrate on broad economic growth.
"Republicans are focused much more on having a rising tide that lifts all boats, even if it lifts more yachts than dinghies," said Scott Winship, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's very striking when compared to Obama's very individual focus on human capital and a federal role in increasing it."
As he has done in his approach to foreign policy, Romney is trying to channel his inner Reagan in economic policy. While Democrats contend that George W. Bush's use of supply-side, unregulated, trickle-down economics caused the Great Recession, Reagan's economic doctrine is alive and well on the right.
"Most of our problems now relate to this asset bubble that formed; it wasn't so much what Bush did or didn't do," Winship argued. "The '80s in retrospect were not a bad period economically. I think it's hard to argue that trickle-down will end up hurting the poor or reducing middle-class opportunities."
Winship and some conservative economists also go a step further. In a series of recent posts, they question a central liberal narrative: that middle-class wages have stagnated since Reagan's presidency. Terry Fitzgerald, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has argued that the rapid postwar growth of the American middle class has slowed over the last 30 years, but the middle class has still increased in size.
"From 1947 to 1975, was very fast growth," Fitzgerald told me. "It was slower since then, but it hasn't been stagnation."
Fitzgerald argued that economic studies showing little increase in the median income of American households are skewed by social changes, not only economic ones. Beginning in the late 1970s, high divorce rates reduced the percentage of American households made up of married couples from 63 percent in 1976 to 50 percent in 2006. Single-parent families earn far less than two-parent families, Fitzgerald argues, and drive down the median income.