Is Obama Helping or Hurting the Middle Class?

US President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection at Stanford University in Palo Alto on February 13, 2015. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Improvements in the economy have been slow but steady over the last few years, something only Democrats are to quick to point to when given the opportunity. However, both parties are prepared to acknowledge that many Americans, particularly the middle class, aren’t feeling improvements as much as they should be. The explanation for that is arguably multifaceted and complex, but often Democrats blame failure of minimum wage legislation and wage equality laws for much of it, while Republicans blame stagnant growth and the trickle down low wages. The gas price drop helped for a time, but February’s harsh winter conditions and subsequent effects on refineries have prices increasing for the short term and consumer confidence dipping for the first time in over six months.

A new poll from Pew Research has a more direct look at what poor or middle-class Americans themselves think isn’t working to make economic improvement felt by all. According to the poll, 72% report that government policies have not helped the middle class, 68% say they haven’t helped small business, and 65% say they have not helped America’s poor either a great deal or a fair amount. Considerably more see wealthy people, large corporations, and large banks and financial institutions benefiting from government policy changes since the recession — and indirectly, since Obama took office.

Seventy-one percent say large banks and financial institutions have benefited either a great deal or fair amount, 67% say the same of large corporations, and 66% say the same of wealthy people. 

On the outside, the policy reforms put out by President Barack Obama are all described in detail as pro-middle class. In his State of the Union Address, he gave “his plan to simplify our complex tax code … to help middle class families get ahead and grow the economy.” His efforts were outlined as working to “give hardworking families the support they need to make ends meet by focusing on policies that benefit the middle class and those working to reach the middle class.”

“The President is committed to securing equal pay for equal work because it’s essential that we build an economy where everyone gets a fair shot,” read a 2012 release. “American families and the health of our nation’s economy depend on it.” The Obama administration’s press rhetoric could not be clearer about the demographic it’s trying to appeal to and on what grounds.

The Democratic party shares many of those identifying factors as well. Which makes the data from Pew Research something of an unfortunate set of information for the left — albeit far from a decisive say in the matter. Poll findings like that are transitory in how applicable they are and how accurately they line up with public opinions — though Pew reports that these numbers are not drastically changed from recent years. The phrasing of the poll is rigid, and doesn’t allow for a very clear picture of some opinions, but having said that, just based on the general idea, it’s bad news for Obama and for Democrats.

In particular, it’s bad news for social policy and for public opinion on aid programs. It speaks to a degree of doubt on how effectively policy is targeting or solving problems associated with or affecting middle class and poor Americans in today’s economy. This is particularly true given the numbers on recovery recognition. An increasing number of individuals say that the job situation has fully or partially recovered, up to 67% from 47% in September 2013. More people believe household incomes have risen as well, increasing to 55% in February of this year from 44% in September 2013. This means that economic recovery is recognized, but the policy connection may not be — and that’s across parties, not just Republicans annoyed by the presence of a Democrat in the presidency.

There is a strong partisan split specifically on whether or not government aid is helping the poor, and there’s a strong divide between rich and poor/middle class opinions on this as well. Republicans and the wealthy tend to consider the policy less effective, while poorer Americans and Democrats are less likely to think so. But on average, there are still 44% of Americans saying that “government aid to the poor does more harm than good.” A slight majority believes the opposite, but the split is nearly negligible, from 49% to 44% with a 2.9 percentage point approximate sample error.

Ultimately the report isn’t proof that the entire American votership is going to immediately shift to small government and declare Libertarian leanings. There’s still a clear Democratic preference for aid programs, but the doubt about policy effectiveness is an important sign that frustration with conditions will eventually turn into doubt about policy, for both parties, not just for Republicans who are already pre-disposed to such sentiment.

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