President Barack Obama did a miserable job of making his own case last week. But speak to his supporters and the pitch is clear: The American middle class is being hollowed out; Obama’s self-appointed mission is to try to save it.
That is what I heard from Jeffrey Liebman, one of the president’s economic advisers, at a debate about the election I moderated at Columbia University on Monday. Liebman said the central difference between his candidate and Mitt Romney was the president’s view that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Instead, he believes policy needs to focus on the middle class. Economic growth, he said, should come from the middle and radiate out.
In a separate interview, Mark Gallogly, co-founder of the private equity and credit investment firm Centerbridge Partners and one of Obama’s earliest supporters on Wall Street, likewise emphasized the middle class. The president’s overriding concern, Gallogly told me, was with the workers who make $24,000 a year. Their lot is a pressing issue, Gallogly argued, because even before the recession there had been persistent downward pressure on middle-class wages. Yesterday’s middle-class job can land you among the working poor today.
You may be tempted to say that focusing on the middle class is about as distinctive as supporting motherhood. That is true enough. Two things stand apart in the Obama administration’s analysis of the problem.
One – and this is what has really riled the billionaire set – is Obama’s belief that making the world safe for American business doesn’t automatically translate into a rescue of the American middle class. The second, related idea is that the globalized, high-tech economy of the 21st century poses a particular challenge to the sorts of well-paid jobs that were the backbone of the U.S. middle class in the 20th.