The Populist Crossfire

Having won a decisive victory in 2008 with a new electorate of Obama voters, it appears Democrats are now, after spending a year on health care reform, caught in a crossfire of white, middle-class anxiety.

Ronald Brownstein chronicles this problem for Democrats in his latest National Journal column, "The Populist Crossfire." For the White House, health care reform was more about helping middle-class Americans who already have insurance than it was about bringing coverage to the poor, Brownstein notes, but Democrats now face a populism that accuses them of being too friendly both to the "less deserving" and to fat-cats. Brownstein writes:

But whites still cast about three-quarters of votes. And if most remain convinced that health reform primarily benefits the poor and uninsured, Democrats could find themselves caught in an unusual populist crossfire during this fall's elections.

Obama has already been hurt by the perception, fanned by Republicans, that the principal beneficiaries of his efforts to repair the economy are the same interests that broke it: Wall Street, big banks, and the wealthy. The belief that Washington has transferred benefits up the income ladder is pervasive across society but especially pronounced among white voters with less than a college education, the group that most resisted Obama in 2008. Now health care could threaten Democrats from the opposite direction by stoking old fears, particularly among the white working class, that liberals are transferring income down the income ladder to the "less deserving."

The solution, Brownstein writes: pass financial reform, and play up the segments of health care reform that most help people who already have coverage.

Economic populism--particularly that coming from the tea party movement (which seems to be led, to a significant extent, by small business people and assorted bourgeois elite, and followed to a significant extent by working-class whites)--is the major current in American politics that figures, right now, to play out in November's elections. The White House's response to it will be critical, and, according to Brownstein, it will entail the sale of financial and health reform to the public as fall approaches.