The Angry Middle Class

On Monday, in a town hall meeting intended to reassure beleaguered voters, the opening questioner, Velma Hart, told the president, ''I voted for a man who was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class and I'm waiting sir, I'm waiting. I still don't feel it yet.'' Hart voiced the frustrations of the countless middle-class Americans, who polls indicate will abandon the Democrats in November. White House officials are frustrated, too, believing that they have achieved much of what the president promised: bring health care to millions, reform Wall Street, and withdraw combat troops from Iraq. So why do voters act as if the administration has failed?

A compelling answer comes from Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who did much to build the Democratic majority that is now in peril. Schumer ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2004 until 2009, when the number of Democratic senators grew from 44 to 60. He attributes his success to an insight about the nature of the American middle class -- namely, that it is wealthier, and wants different things from government than most of his colleagues realized.

Democrats have always claimed to be the party of ordinary working families, but Schumer thought they were deluding themselves. Most Democratic policies, such as the earned income tax credit or increasing the minimum wage, were geared not toward the middle class but the poor. When middle-class Americans heard Democrats describe their problems, it did not resonate because they were actually the problems of the working poor. Schumer believed that the true middle class comprises people in the prime working years of 25 to 60, whose median household income is around $68,000. He urged his candidates to tout aspirational policies that would appeal to them.

''If you win the middle class you win the election, and if you lose them you lose the election,'' said Jim Kessler, the vice president of Third Way, a left-center Washington think tank. ''That's not an opinion, it's a fact. From 1994 to 2004 -- six consecutive election cycles -- Democrats lost median income voters.'' But in 2006 and 2008, with a powerful assist from George W. Bush, they won them and shifted the balance of power in Washington. Schumer read these results as endorsing the idea of a government active on behalf of the middle class.

Two years later, such activist government has accomplished a great deal. But it appears to have lost the Schumer middle class. The latest Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor poll (pdf) revealed that optimism about an economic recovery has declined precipitously since April -- and this decline has been steepest among those earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year.

What went wrong?

One explanation is that none of the administration's three major accomplishments has helped middle-class families in a way that is obvious to them. The stimulus mitigated the effects of the recession, but unemployment remains brutally high. The health-care law most visibly affects the millions without insurance, but that group doesn't include most median-income workers. The rescue and reform of the financial system may have halted the damage to their 401(k)s, but the major beneficiaries appear to them to be Wall Street banks. Indeed, the poll showed that most Americans think that the principal beneficiaries of the government's efforts to restore the economy have been the very same institutions that caused the crisis. Small wonder that Velma Hart struck a chord.

Pursuing a different agenda might have been more popular. But the real frustration for the White House is that each of these policies does benefit the middle class, but the benefits tend to take the form of increased security or cost savings difficult for most people to quantify. Over time, health insurance will be more comprehensive, secure, and affordable; Wall Street meltdowns won't occur as often, and when they do occur they'll cost taxpayers less. Clearly, these advances have not registered, or have not been sufficient.

Schumer is discouraged, but still faithful to his view of the middle class and its requirements. ''People will choose a government that helps them over no government at all,'' he said. ''But they'll choose no government over one they believe is helping somebody else.'' There doesn't
seem to be much doubt about which one they will choose.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.