A Different Kind of Referendum

If Barack Obama hangs on to win on November 6, we’ll see some interesting post-election scrambling from political scientists, or at least those who have made pretty hard-core statements insisting that nothing much matters other than economic indicators, which have not in fact improved enough this year to justify an incumbent victory.

On a deeper level, though, there will and should be some discussion of the surprising willingness of Americans to deal with economic adversity other than by pointing fingers at the party or the president in charge. A good starting point will be this week’s National Journal column from Ron Brownstein, who looks at his magazine’s polling data and sees a more nuanced understanding of economic realities and responsibility for overcoming them than we are used to hearing about, particularly among those who haven’t experienced personal financial calamity but are treading water:

What’s clear in the poll…is that many Americans feel the economy is experiencing fundamental changes beyond the reach of any president to reshape quickly, or perhaps at all. Although some respondents said they believed that the 2012 election would determine the level of opportunity available for future generations, many others said that the nation’s economic trials reflect problems that have accumulated over time and are unlikely to be resolved soon. When asked to identify the barriers to getting ahead, more respondents picked the decisions by American companies to relocate jobs overseas than any other option.

Those sentiments help explain why the famous Ronald Reagan question that Republicans highlighted at their national convention in Tampa last month—Are you better off than you were four years ago?—may not be as politically effective as in earlier years. In the poll, likely voters split almost exactly in thirds between those who say they are better off than four years ago, worse off, and unchanged. Obama, however, not only holds a preponderant lead among those who say they are better off but also among those who say their finances are unchanged since 2008—his advantage among the latter is 3-to-2. Only among those who say they are worse off does Romney lead. “I came out of a blue-collar world; the way I came up, it doesn’t exist anymore,” says Maria Shaw, a child-welfare worker from Champaign Ill., who was laid off from her job recently but is supporting Obama. “I recognize that when you’re in a difficult position, you’re not going to dig out of it right away.”

Brownstein’s analysis hardly provides a great deal of vindication of the Obama’s administration’s economic polices or campaign message, but casts a much darker shadow on the GOP’s efforts to win on an empty “referendum” message and then pursue a radical agenda that is far out of touch with what a majority of Americans seem to think or want.

The obstacles to advancement that most worry Americans…don’t consistently align with either party’s agenda. Instead, the public skittered between traditional priorities of the Right (taxes and regulation) and the Left (inequality, rising cost of higher education) and ultimately raised the greatest alarm about long-term global investment patterns of American companies that neither party believes it can influence much more than marginally. While the parties duel over the role of government (in a calcified argument that, the survey shows, has left neither with a national majority for its position), more Americans appear uncertain that either side can meaningfully address the employment and income challenges they face.

Whatever else it represents, the atmosphere Brownstein describes is not terribly congruent with a party and a candidate devoted to celebrating “success” as defined by the uncontrolled and unregulated accumulation of wealth and power by the very “job-creators” Americans seem to mistrust even more than “bureaucrats” or other agents of “big government.” So to whatever extent this is election is a “referendum” on Obama’s policies, it’s also a referendum on the challenges the opposition party doesn’t even seem to recognize, much less want to address.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.