Why Elizabeth Warren Trumps Obama’s Economic Message
Policy + Politics

Why Elizabeth Warren Trumps Obama’s Economic Message

Reuters/Yuri Gripas

The Obama administration and liberal Democrats appear at odds these days over how best to characterize – and capitalize on – the booming economic recovery.

President Obama has hit the road this week to bask in the glow of a surging economy that has sent the unemployment rate tumbling to 5.8 percent, boosted GDP by five percent in the third quarter of last year, and substantially chipped away at the budget deficit. “There is no doubt thanks to the steps we took early on to rescue our economy [that] America is coming back,” Obama said during a visit to an auto plant in Michigan. “The facts are the facts.”

Related: Why Obama’s on Risky Ground in Touting the Economy

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a champion of their party’s liberal wing, argues that Obama is mistaken in gleefully claiming credit for the recovery. She says the Democrats’ focus must remain on disillusioned middle-class Americans who have been left behind by the recovery. “Despite these cheery numbers, America’s middle class is in deep trouble,” she said in a speech to an AFL-CIO conference in Washington.


Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) insists she’s not a candidate for president in 2016, but she is increasingly speaking out on liberal causes and may eventually eclipse President Obama in shaping their party’s campaign message going forward.

The tensions within the party reflect sharp differences in tactics and emphasis. After years of relentless economic bad news and criticism of his stewardship, Obama seems determined to claim credit for a vastly improving economy that is the envy of European and Asian leaders.

Yet from a purely tactical standpoint heading into the 2016 presidential campaign season, Warren appears to be making the more salient political argument. The ticket to a political recovery in two years is to hammer away at the need to make the financially struggling middle class feel secure.

Political experts have offered varying explanations for why the Republicans crushed the Democrats in the November mid-term election – from widespread dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies to frustration over partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill to a decision by many Hispanics to protest the president’s delay in acting on immigration reform by sitting out the election. 

Related: The 6 Power Players Who Will Shape the 2015 Political Agenda   

“We’re at a moment of great anxiety as a nation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said this week in analyzing the outcome of the election. “The people we represent have lost faith in their government. They no longer trust Washington to do the right thing.”

However, a new study issued by the Pew Research Center on Thursday offers another intriguing explanation for why the Democrats did so poorly at the polls: that many lower income or “financially insecure” Americans who were inclined to vote Democratic simply opted out of the political system and left the Democrats hanging high and dry.

These “financially insecure” non-voters include many middle class Americans that Warren invokes in practically every speech she gives now. By contrast, wealthier or more financially secure people who historically have supported Republican candidates turned out in much larger numbers and helped the GOP sweep to victory.

“Financial security is strongly correlated with nearly every measure of political engagement,” the study found. Last fall, for instance, about 94 percent of financially secure Americans said they were registered to vote, while only little more than half of the least financially secure were registered.

The financially troubled group makes up about 20 percent of the general public and 15 percent of registered voters, compared with the most financially secure who represent a quarter of the general public and 33 percent of registered voters, according to Pew data.

While the 2014 voting records are not yet fully available to researchers, pre-election estimates suggest that 63 percent of the most financially secure were “likely voters” last November, compared with just 20 percent of the least financially secure, according to the report.

Related: The ‘Draft Elizabeth Warren’ Effort Gets $1M Boost

“There were a lot of votes left on the table” by the Democrats, noted Scott Keeter, Pew’s Director of Survey Research, in an interview yesterday. “The alternative universe is that the election could have looked very different if those people had all showed up to vote.”

It’s not exactly news that the Democrats failed miserably at turning out its base in the November mid-term election after Obama racked up huge, historic presidential election victories in 2008 and 20012. 

The turnout in the November election was the lowest in more than seven decades. In 43 states, less than half the eligible population bothered to vote, according to The New York Times and no state broke 60 percent. Overall, the national turnout was a dismal 36.3 percent.

Democrats paid heavily as Republicans regained control of the Senate for the first time in eight years and expanded their majority in the House. A large share of the blame went to Democratic lawmakers and an unpopular president who failed to rally traditional elements of the party – including struggling middle-class black, Hispanic and white voters.

Things could be different next time depending on the presidential matchup. Yet even a candidate as formidable as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may have trouble breaking through the lethargy or indifference of disgruntled middle class Democrats who have lived with wage stagnation for years.

Related: Tackling Wage Stagnation May Be Out of Reach for Now   

The Pew study was based on data gathered from a nationally representative panel of 3,154 adults, who were surveyed on line and by mail between September and early October.  In defining the “least financially secure Americans,” the study used metrics well beyond income.

This group is predominantly female, non-white, single and with limited educations. Many of them have little understanding of politics. And some have health conditions that restrict their movement and can even keep them from the voting booth.  Only about seven percent of them have a college degree, compared to nearly half for the most the most financially secure.  

 “The Democrats would have won the November election by a gigantic margin if all of those people had actually showed up to vote,” Keeter said. “I think both parties need to think about this group – to the extent the Republicans might want to up their success among not just white voters but all voters.”  

“This analysis suggests that a good message to the middle class could potentially yield you a lot of votes,” he added.

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