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Hillary Clinton Adopts Obama's Middle Class, Fair Shot Positioning

Hillary Clinton Adopts Obama's Middle Class, Fair Shot Positioning

Hillary Clinton has essentially adopted one of Barack Obama's major policy thrusts in her nascent presidential campaign, identifying a large swath of the country's population, assuming that this large group has the economic deck stacked against them, and then promising to help them gain economically in the future.

Clinton spoke less than 100 words in her presidential announcement video, but most of those words were focused on this theme: "Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top. Everyday Americans need a champion and I want to be that champion. So you can do more than just get by, you can get ahead and stay ahead, because when families are strong, America is strong."

President Obama has struck very similar themes in his pronouncements over the years on economic topics. His weekly address to the nation on Jan. 24, for example, focused on:

"…middle-class economics…the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules." And that, "…an economy that generates rising incomes and rising chances for everyone who makes the effort," and a focus on, "…closing loopholes in our tax code that stack the decks for special interests and the superrich."

Both politicians began by naming the group of Americans they were addressing. For Clinton it was "everyday" Americans and for Obama the "middle class."

There is no formally agreed upon definition of either of these groups, to my knowledge. We do know that the term middle class is so broad that the big majority of Americans think they belong in it. In a recent Gallup survey, we asked Americans to identify as either lower class, middle class or upper class, and 68% chose "middle class". Almost no one identifies as upper class, and about 30% say they are in the lower class.

So when Obama uses the term middle class, it presumably resonates with a big segment of the overall population.

Clinton and her strategists decided to use the term "everyday" Americans rather than middle class in her announcement video. There is certainly no formal definition of this term either. It is a little vague. I presume the Clinton team decided, perhaps with the help of research, that "everyday Americans" connotes average or normal Americans. The presumption is that Warren Buffett or Mark Zuckerberg or the Koch brothers or Mitt Romney (or Bill and Hillary Clinton themselves, for that matter) are not "everyday" Americans in the sense that they have a lot more money than the average American. It's possible that this term resonates because of the hit 1969 song "Everyday People" made famous by Sly and the Family Stone. This song, popular just as a 21-year-old Clinton was preparing to graduate from Wellesley College, was a call for equality, including the lyrics, "I am no better and neither are you. We are the same whatever we do." Of course, the Sly and the Family Stone song most likely isn't very well known to millennials and those who came before baby boomers, a key target group for a winning Democratic presidential coalition.

It's possible that Clinton's team decided to eschew "middle class" because it excluded those in the lower class who are very much a part of her target group, and thus decided that the vaguer term "everyday people" was more inclusionary.

Regardless of the specifics, however, it's clear that both Obama and Clinton think it politically relevant to move beyond the typical "my fellow Americans" terminology and narrow the scope of their focus to a smaller group that, in one way or the other, excludes those at the top.

Speaking of those at the top, both politicians have targeted the aspirational idea that members of these segments -- middle class or everyday Americans -- want to have increased incomes, wealth and social status. Obama talked about "rising incomes and rising chances" while Clinton talked about doing more than just getting by, but instead a desired situation where "you can get ahead and stay ahead". Presumably Clinton in her statement meant "ahead" in the sense of moving beyond where an individual is today, rather than ahead of one's neighbors in a competitive sense.

Obama and Clinton didn't talk about getting rich, just getting ahead and enjoying increased incomes, but there is little doubt that everything else being equal, Americans would like to be rich. We know, in fact, that 63% of Americans, as of a couple of years ago, said that they would personally like to be rich if they had the choice, higher than it had been back in 1990.

So, an attempt to tap into the aspirational dreams of Americans to get ahead or increase their incomes certainly is reaching what would appear to be an abundant target market.

Actually, there are already some signs that Americans, taken as a whole, are feeling better about their financial situation. Two-thirds of Americans feel that they expect to be better off "next year" financially that they are now, while just 15% say that they will be worse off. And in another recent Gallup survey, more than half said that their financial situations are getting better, not worse. Six in 10 Americans are satisfied with the "opportunity for a person in this nation to get ahead by working hard," the highest since the beginning of the recession, although still below the 76% and 77% recorded in 2001 and 2002.

The key third leg of the economic stool that forms the basis for the Clinton and Obama economic positioning is the most complicated and unclear at this point. The idea is that the middle class/everyday Americans are not able to get ahead/have rising incomes because the "deck is stacked" -- a key phrase used by both politicians. Obama in particular has often articulated his view that the middle class does not get to "play by the same rules" as the upper class.

What does this mean and what are the policy implications? Clinton says in her announcement video that "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top." One way that the deck could be stacked thusly is that those at the top avoid taxes, enjoy tax loopholes (as Obama has specifically mentioned) or that they have teams of lawyers and accountants who can arrange things in economically beneficial ways that are not available to the middle class/everyday Americans. Americans, taken as a whole, do in fact think that upper-income Americans pay too little in taxes and many poll results show that Americans would be fine with additional taxes on those making high incomes. So, if Clinton proposes to restack the deck to avoid favoring those at the top by increasing their taxes, she is probably on reasonably safe ground.

Her use of the passive tense, "the deck is still stacked…" doesn't make it clear who has done the stacking, of course. Is the idea that once Americans become rich or are members of the upper class, they turn around and quickly change the system so that those behind them can't enjoy the same rewards? Along these lines, it's important to remember that the majority of Americans think it is good in general to have a rich class in this country, and the majority would like to be rich someday themselves. So rather than resenting the rich, many Americans envy the rich and want to be considered a part of that group themselves.

There is a second focus point that arises when a politician talks about the deck being stacked against those not at the top. This is the idea that the probability of one being upwardly mobile in an economic sense is higher if one is born into socioeconomic circumstances that are already elevated than if one is not. This is indisputably true. An individual who might be considered an "everyday American" certainly has a lower chance of attaining high levels of education, income and wealth if that individual comes from a background where those do not exist already, than if the individual comes from a background already representative of those positive circumstances. The reasons for this are extremely complex. How to change this cycle has been the focus of policy changes, political actions and a huge philosophic debate and discussion going back for decades if not centuries -- highlighting the difficulty in coming up with simple solutions.

Candidate Clinton, as has Obama before her, proposes to wade into these waters herself -- promising to make it easier for everyday Americans to get ahead and stay ahead. We don't know exactly how she will do this at this point, but there is no do doubt her proposals will be forthcoming. At that point we can measure how well what she proposes will fit in with the attitudes and desires of the American public.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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