How Obama Wooed the Middle Class

Dan Balz’s “Collision 2012” is the best presidential campaign chronicle in many years. It is a great book, in part because it isn’t about what happened as much as about how people in the campaigns were thinking. It is unusual in that it gives proper place to the impact of thought on political outcomes.

The Obama campaign had a lot going for it in 2012, but a lot going against it, too, most obviously the economy. A year before the election Americans weren’t sure who the president was. He held himself at bay, observes Mr. Balz: “An Obama friend once suggested to me that the teleprompter was a perfect metaphor for the president, a physical symbol of how he kept the world at arm’s length.” His ties with the institutional Democratic Party were “minimal.” Members of his own White House were still trying to explain his ideology and leadership style. One compared the president’s relationship with the left to Lincoln’s with the radical Republicans who thought him too cautious, when in retrospect he was daring.

Middle Class out in the coldOthers around President Obama said he was no centrist like Bill Clinton. He saw no particular virtue in staking out the middle or splitting differences. Compared with Mr. Clinton, Obama “had less capacity to put himself in the minds of his opponents, to understand where they were coming from and why,” Mr. Balz writes. That hindered his ability to negotiate successfully with Republicans in Congress, which in turn damaged his reputation for competence.

So the Obama campaign faced real challenges. But they loved research and data, which they used to help think it all through.

They knew the economy was the president’s biggest obstacle to re-election, that they couldn’t win a referendum on his economic stewardship. They wanted a way to “leapfrog” the immediate economic debate. In Iowa they convened a focus group of independents who had supported Obama in 2008 but voted Republican in 2010. They found themselves fascinated by one frustrated man in his 50s. An Obama adviser summed up the man’s stated grievances: “I can’t send my kid to college next year. . . . I haven’t had a raise in five years. . . . I am sick and tired of giving bailouts to the folks at the top and handouts to the folks at the bottom. I’m going to fire people [politicians] until my life gets better.”

That is as succinct a summation as I’ve seen of how the American middle class has been thinking the past few years: The guys at the top and the bottom are taken care of while I get squeezed.

The Obama people took his comments seriously. It would be nice to say they were primarily looking for policies to help him, but their job was politics: They sought ways to reach him, to make him an Obama voter.

What followed was a “massive research effort” to help the Obama campaign develop a message. They came to see a long erosion, in the words of an aide, “of what it meant to be middle class in America.”

The campaign asked middle-aged, middle-income Americans to keep online financial journals. Over 100 people took part, twice a week for three weeks. The Obama campaign did not reveal it was behind the effort. Participants were asked such questions as whether or not they were putting off various purchases, or buying a used car rather than a new one. They were also asked: When was the last time you were treated unfairly at work? The journals yielded 1,400 pages of raw material.

I’ll add here that when I told a young friend, a professional in her 20s, about this, she asked: “Do they have to do things like that to understand their own country?” Yes, they do. Ideology is only part of it. The American political consultant class lives rarefied lives. Business is good for them in the modern democracies and likely always will be. That’s true of those on the Republican side, too.

What followed the journals was a series of focus groups in which members, according to an aide, “shared a strong sense that America was changing in a way that was out of their control.” They felt the old rules of the economy no longer applied. They didn’t know how to get ahead anymore, and they feared sliding behind.

The groups revealed that the American dream meant less to younger workers than to older ones. Here a departure from the book: There is pervasive confusion about what the American dream is. We seem to have redefined it to mean the acquisition of material things—a car, a house and a pool. That was not the meaning of the American dream a few generations ago. The definition then was that in this wonderful place called America, you can start out from nothing and become anything. It was aspirational. The limits of class and background wouldn’t and couldn’t keep you from becoming a person worthy of respect, even renown. If you wanted to turn that into houses and a pool, fine. But you didn’t have to. You could have a modest job like teacher and be the most respected woman in town.

When we turned the American dream into a dream about materialism, we disheartened our young, who now are forced to achieve what we’ve defined as success in a straitened economy.

Back to the book. The Obama campaign’s research produced three findings. The first was obvious: People were dissatisfied with the economy. Second, people hadn’t quite given up on the president. Third, they weren’t sure he was up to the job. They feared the nation’s problems were bigger than he was, and they criticized his failed negotiations with the Republicans in Congress. Amazingly, people in focus groups kept bringing up Lyndon Johnson, who knew how to knock heads and twist arms. A campaign aide told Mr. Balz, “I’ve never had so many damned references to Lyndon Johnson in my life!”

Washington journalists usually blame Mr. Obama’s failures to work with Congress on the GOP—its tea-party nuttiness, its “nihilism.” But the president’s own focus groups, which didn’t contain Obama haters on the assumption they were unreachable, put the onus on him: It’s your job, make it work, get it done.

The Obama campaign decided not to make the campaign about the state of the economy, but about who could look after the interests of the middle class in a time of historic transition. At the same time they decided to go after Mitt Romney hard, and remove him as a reasonable alternative. His selling point was that he understood the economy and made it work for him: He was rich. They turned that into a tale of downsizing, layoffs and rapacious capitalism. An Obama adviser: “He may get the economy, he may know how to make money . . . but every time he did, folks like you lost your pensions, lost your jobs.”

Somehow the Romney campaign never saw it coming.

Republicans, now and in 2016, should remember the colorful but not at all high-minded approach of Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “My favorite political philosopher is Mike Tyson,” he told Mr. Balz. “Mike Tyson once said everyone has a plan until you punch them in the face. Then they don’t have a plan anymore.” Obama’s people punched first, and hard.