President Obama Scores With Middle Class Message


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As one participant put it, “I agree with his tax reform - the 1 percent should shoulder more of the burden than the other 99 percent. He [Obama] talked about being all for one, one for all - that really resonated for me.” These dial focus groups make it very clear that defending further tax cuts for those at the top of the economic spectrum puts Republicans in Congress and on the Presidential campaign trail well outside of the American mainstream.

These voters overwhelmingly liked what they heard from Obama- even those who voted against him in 2008 appreciated the address. But they continued to show deep skepticism that the President would be able to translate these words into actions. The more Democratic participants mostly blamed Republican obstructionism while the more Republican participants insisted that Obama might talk a good game, but his actions in office did not reflect the words in this speech. But participants across the political spectrum all agreed that Washington is broken and that progress on the important issues would be difficult until Congress addresses the corrupting influence of lobbyists and special interests.

This was not the easiest audience for Obama; although slightly more participants voted for him than McCain in 2008, it was a significantly Republican-leaning group (44 percent Republican, 32 percent Democratic). At the outset, these voters were split 50/50 on Obama’s job performance and just 50 percent gave him a favorable personal rating. But the President gained ground after the speech; his job rating rose 8 points and his personal standing jumped 16 points, to 66 percent favorable.

Key Findings

The Middle Class and the Economy

More importantly, Obama connected on the central thrust of his speech. Prior to the address, just 42 percent of these Republican-leaning voters said that Obama was “for the middle class.” But this measure jumped 24 points after the speech, to 66 percent. As the table above shows, Obama also saw large gains on having “good plans for the economy,” job creation, taxes and “understanding the issues important to my life.”

The dials spiked when the President made his strong populist pitch for the “Buffett Rule,” with Democrats exceeding 80 on our 0-to-100 scale and both independents and Republicans moving above 70. There was no polarization here, as voters across the political spectrum gave Obama high marks. And Obama’s framing of the economic challenges facing the country through the lens of post-World War II America was particularly effective. He also received high marks for his proposal to change the tax code to encourage “insourcing” instead of “outsourcing,” his call to change our “unemployment system” to a “re-employment system” and his appeal to make it easier for entrepreneurs and small business to grow and create jobs.

The President was least effective on the economy when he tried to take credit for economic successes, such as pointing to the 3 million new private sector jobs created in the last 22 months. He engendered much more positive responses when giving credit, rather than taking it, using stories about businesses such as GM, Chrysler, Energetx and Masterlock to highlight the success of his policies.

Obama also generated a strong response when discussing energy. This section received the highest sustained ratings of the speech from Democrats and independents, but it was also one of the few polarizing sections as Republicans reacted negatively to the President’s call for more support of clean energy (independents, like Democrats, responded very favorably). Overall, Obama gained 22 points on the issue, one of his biggest gains on the evening, as these voters endorsed his appeal to end subsidies for oil companies and instead focus those resources on expanding clean energy in America. 

Education

The President also sustained high ratings when talking about education. He touched a chord with his offer to give schools the resources and flexibility they need to “to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test,” pushing all three groups close to 80. These voters responded well to the proposal to keep student loan rates low and he drew positive reviews, particularly with independents, for his plan to turn community colleges into “community career centers.” 

Foreign Policy

While Obama’s foreign policy ratings started the night higher than his ratings on domestic issues, he still managed to make modest gains on all of our foreign policy measures. Voters gave the highest ratings of the night to the two mentions of Osama bin Laden, both of which pushed the average dial rating close to 90, but other portions of the foreign policy section also scored well. Interestingly, independents consistently rated this section higher than even Democrats did, sustaining numbers in the 70s. President Obama also won spikes in the dials when he referenced “our last troops to serve in Iraq,” and the effort to “wind down the war in Afghanistan.”

Unified Response

Despite the heated partisan polarization in Washington, for the most part, Obama generated a unified response across the partisan spectrum. In most speeches like this, we see significant sections where the dial lines of Democrats and Republicans completely diverge. But aside from a few instances (such as energy), the President was able to move Democrats, independents, and Republicans together. As one participant noted, “What he said tonight appeals to everyone. If any of it comes to pass it would be fantastic for the country.”


Written by Stan Greenberg, Andrew Baumann, Erica Seifert, Patrick Faust for Democracy Corps.