Arguably, the past generation’s most important political trend has been the class inversion in the two parties’ support. Since the 1960s, Republicans have gained enormous ground among blue-collar white voters, many of them conservative on cultural and national security issues, who once anchored the Democratic coalition. Since the 1980s, Democrats have advanced among well-educated and affluent voters who are fiscally moderate but lean left on the same social and foreign-policy issues that have moved blue-collar families toward the GOP.
In the 2008 election, Obama struggled with blue-collar whites but extended the Democratic inroads upscale. This new survey shows him improving his position since then with both camps and further loosening the Republican grip on well-off groups that soured on George W. Bush
He goes on to warn that anti-government attitudes among upscale voters could undermine Obama’s base of support for specific domestic policy iniitiatives, with the proviso that even well-off Americans look to government for solutions on health care. Even there, suggests Brownstein, Obama needs to be careful if he wants to keep the classes as well as the masses on his side:
[G]iven the priority they place on autonomy and their skepticism about Washington, these better-off Obama supporters may be especially sensitive to charges that his initiative will reduce choice by increasing government control over health care. Avoiding the Big Government label that helped sink President Clinton’s universal coverage proposal may be critical not only to Obama’s sustaining approval for his reform plan but also to his solidifying his unusually diverse coalition of support.
Brownstein’s analysis is much more impressive than the usual what-goes-up-must-go-down predictions that Obama’s approval ratings will, any day now, collapse. But even Ron may be overestimating the extent to which the president must rely on discrete approbation of his specific policy initiatives.
If we’ve learned anything from Drew Westen, it’s that political allegiances are not, after all, just a matter of personal calculations of which party is more congruent with one’s preferences on a list of policy issues. If that were the case, Democrats would have won most of the presidential and congressional campaigns of the last three decades.
The political capital that a president can bring to bear in support of his policy agenda is not just the sum of support-levels for his discrete policy initiatives. His personal credibility isn’t just an ephemeral asset that will dwindle away when “real issues” emergge; it matters. And moreover, at a time like this, it also matters that the alternatives are a profoundly unpopular status quo and the policy offerings of a Republican Party that’s lost in some strange time warp where the New Deal failed, Herbert Hoover was dangerously prone to big-government solutions, and Ayn Rand got the fundamentals right.
Brownstein is right that big-picture assessments of his policy agenda among this or that voter category will help determine whether he can maintain his current base of support. But there’s not much appetite right now for “nothing” or “no” as alternatives, and that’s Barack Obama’s ultimate ace in the hole.