Why Obama Is Winning the Battle for Middle America

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The dueling platforms from the president and the GOP front-runner are both disappointing. But one is much more disappointing than the other.
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Reuters

Barack Obama is going to save America's middle class by taxing the rich and fostering an American manufacturing renaissance. Mitt Romney is going to revive it by creating more jobs for women and rewarding successful people instead of punishing them.

Welcome to the so-far deeply disappointing 2012 general election. This week's middle-class-related broadsides from both campaigns bordered on the comic.

Obama's promoting of the Buffett Rule in Florida on Tuesday was smart politics, but the measure is unlikely to create jobs or significantly reduce the deficit. Even liberal pundits assailed it as an election-year "gimmick."

And Obama's concept of reviving American manufacturing is politically appealing but completely untested. As my colleague Chrystia Freeland noted, it flies in the face of decades of Anglo-American conventional wisdom that state interventions in the economy inevitably fail. Whether Obama is right or wrong will not be known before Election Day.

Romney, meanwhile, used a piece of carefully selected economic data to try to attack a 19-percentage-point advantage Obama enjoys among female voters. On Tuesday, he toured a Delaware company that has a female CEO and said women have suffered 92.3 percent of job losses since Obama took office in January 2009. Within hours, the figure, while technically accurate, was criticized as misleading.

Since the recession began in December 2007, men have lost 3.3 million jobs and women have lost 1.2 million jobs, according to the New York Times Economix blog. The surge in job losses among women is primarily due to cuts in the female-dominated government sector. Those reductions were backed by Republicans, not Democrats.

TWO BIG LIES

Both campaigns can - and must - do better. A deeply shaken American middle class is yearning for honest debate and realistic approaches to the country's economic and fiscal dilemmas.

The far left and far right have gotten louder thanks to Fox, MSNBC and the corporate owners of those media outlets, which profit financially from the division they sow. But I believe Middle America - and the independent voters who will decide the election - will award the White House to the candidate who shows the most pragmatism and political courage.

In truth, there are no simple answers when it comes to helping the middle class or understanding what is happening to it. No official U.S. government definition of the "middle class" exists. Nor does a consensus: Democrats say the middle class is in free fall, while Republicans insist it is doing just fine.

Whatever is occurring, public opinion polls show deep unease in Middle America. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted last week found that 76 percent of Americans believe the country is still in recession and 68 percent think it is headed in the wrong direction.

Economists broadly agree that the best way to help the middle class is to create large numbers of high-paying new jobs. It is also crucial to rein in the federal deficit and make Social Security and Medicare - two cornerstones of a middle-class retirement - financially sustainable. The problems are far more complex than Warren Buffett paying less tax than his secretary or conservative diatribes against government regulation.

As Matt Miller correctly pointed out in the Washington Post this week, both parties are ignoring hard truths and hard choices. "The big Republican lie" is that the American government does not need to raise taxes in any form as baby boomers retire and the number of people on Social Security and Medicare doubles. And "the big Democratic lie" is that the country can solve its staggering fiscal problems by raising taxes only on people who make over $250,000 a year.

"More than most political deceptions," Miller wrote, "these two warp the debate in ways that make pragmatic progress impossible."

Miller's solution? A truth-telling third-party candidate. The chances are low, but the stirrings of an independent bid still exist. Independents now make up 34 percent of voters across the country, according to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, compared with 34 percent identifying themselves as Democrats and 28 percent as Republicans. A website, Americans Elect, has collected 2.5 million signatures in an effort to place an as-yet-unchosen independent candidate on the ballot.

I share their disappointment. So far, the two-party system is failing to spark the serious debate we desperately need.

Obama should detail exactly how he would tackle the deficit and create a lean but effective federal government. Romney should stop blaming government for all of America's evils. Obama should announce specific reforms that will make Social Security and Medicare sustainable. And Romney should propose a reduction in defense spending instead of an increase.

Both candidates should take risks, be less political and get off their talking points. That is a naive sentiment, of course, but the country is divided, adrift and urgently in need of new models.

Romney, beware. Obama, for now, is winning the battle for Middle America.

Asked in last week's poll which candidate would do a better job "defending the middle class," Obama had a 10-percentage-point advantage over Romney. Asked which was a bigger problem in America, 52 percent chose "unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy" and only 37 percent said "over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity."

And Obama, beware. He may narrowly win re-election, but avoiding hard truths is no way to gain a mandate. Tactical compromise has not served the White House well for the past four years. Is the Buffett Rule really the legacy Barack Obama wants to leave?

This article originally appeared on Reuters, a partner site

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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