One clear sign of America’s social unease is found in the constant refrain that our current economic condition has poisoned the well for the middle class in the United States. That theme has long been a favorite of American labor leaders, who have wrongly claimed that the great improvement in the quality of life of the middle class during the twentieth century was due to the ability of union leaders to secure high wages and stable jobs for their employees. In his recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, President Barack Obama made the same argument. There he announced in no uncertain terms that the “defining issue” of our time is how to rescue the fragile economic position of the American middle class, which he defined in the broadest possible terms.
At one level, the speech is smart politics. Little is gained politically by engaging in long and inconclusive debates over the makeup of the middle class. For reelection purposes, the president is right to cast the net broadly. So forget whether professionals, managers, and high government officials earn too much money to count as bona fide members of the middle class. The key point is that many individuals who once were classified as “working class” by sociologists now think of themselves as middle-class Americans threatened by the current economic malaise. If the president can rally this broad group to his cause, he stands a good chance of winning the next election against a Republican nominee who will likely be painted as a pawn of the privileged few, who are increasingly viewed as the enemies of the middle class.