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Language to win elections: middle-class economics and the parent agenda in America

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What started with the popular “Wall Street vs Main Street” metaphor during the global financial crisis turned more recently into a war of words that put “the middle class” front-and-center in a fight where Republicans and Democrats alike now seem to be speaking the same language, though with very different definitions of post-Recession America.

A turning point in this battle came during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address in January when he said “middle-class economics” five times while discussing his economic agenda in order to convey more clearly his criticism of the trickle-down school of economics so dear to his political rivals. It was the moment when Americans began to see a major shift not only in rhetoric, but in the party platform itself: The final cornerstone of the liberal agenda had been laid with the Affordable Care Act and now Democrats needed a new social issue to push them through 2016.

“(…)middle-class economics is the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” Obama explained during his Address. “Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change. That means helping folks afford childcare, college, healthcare, a home, retirement.”

This is language that resonates well with a public among which, according to Gallup, 55% of people feel like members of the middle or upper-middle class and 67% are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed.

Moreover Republicans are becoming very aware of the power of these words and are jumping on the bandwagon. Long gone are the days when conservatives like Rick Santorum would be quoted as saying, for example during a 2011 campaign stop in Iowa, “I’m for income inequality. I think some people should make more than other people, because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risk.”

In a recent commentary for Bloomberg, Ben Brody asked why Republicans are talking more about the middle class and income inequality. His answer, “With wages stagnant, concern about wealth distribution increasing, and the President embarking on an aggressive push for the middle class, Republicans aren’t just talking about lower taxes and a rising tide lifting all boats. They are making their pitch explicit, with a little help from Democratic rhetoric.”

Of course this shared rhetoric comes with a partisan edge and the plight of the middle class is often a reason for the GOP to pound on Obama’s performance. The website of Senator Mike Lee, Republican from Utah, declared “bigger government is not the solution to unequal opportunity – it’s the cause.” And Mitt Romney recently told the Republican National Committee that “under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before.”

Since last year, when the middle class was adopted into GOP language just in time for the midterm elections – and with positive results –, the race for the 2016 presidential election has brought out a more personal touch: Republican hopefuls are eager to highlight their roots in the working class. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, tells of his father working the night-shift in a factory to put himself through college; former Texas Governor Rick Perry has repeatedly reminded voters that he was raised on a farm with no running water; and Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s family story of immigration is widely known. This rhetoric appeals to voters and, at the same time, allows for distance from the biggest potential opponent in the primaries: Jeb Bush, who could run on name recognition alone, but who clearly can’t play the working class card.  

On the other side of the board, there’s Hillary Clinton. She and Obama are reading from the same playbook and the language used in Obama’s Address will likely provide the foundation for Clinton’s own economic agenda. But with Clinton being a female presidential candidate, who hopes to ride the waves of the new liberal social platform, another element is emerging that is truly interesting for the American voter. We’re seeing middle-class economics branching out into what is beginning to be defined as the “parent” or “family agenda” featuring policy ideas like affordable childcare, paid family leave and free community college.

“The emerging Democratic agenda is meant to appeal to parents,” wrote Nate Cohen in a New York Times commentary. “The result is a thematic platform addressing some of the biggest sources of anxiety about the future of the middle class.”

Mike Madowitz, Economist at the liberal Center for American Progress, agrees that middle-class economics goes hand-in-hand with the parent agenda. “One of the major economic challenges facing middle-class families in the US is the difficulty of being a parent and earning a middle class income at the same time,” he says. “For instance, the best study I know of shows the annual cost of full-time childcare exceeds the median rent cost in every state. One of the major areas we think the US can grow its economy and strengthen its middle class is by reducing barriers to work for parents.”

This could be seen as yet another refinement of the Democratic vision for post-Recession America – especially as favorable economic conditions grow and as a new presidential race nears. Furthermore, as the parent agenda is born, the women agenda naturally follows, as many of the proposals under discussion speak to women, who continue to bear the burden of child rearing, in particular. Therefore this could represent the perfect policy language mix (middle class, parents, families, women) for a female presidential candidate – and an opportunity to expand party appeal and win more female voters.

Clinton is clearly on board with the language. In a recent speech she was quoted as saying, “[T]he lack of flexible and predictable work schedules, no paid family leave, very few affordable and reliable child care options – this is all part of a larger story about how hard it is today for families to hold together, hold together their lives, hold together a middle-class lifestyle.”

Add in her newly coined “grandmother glow” and, of course, her heavyweight last name, and Clinton is well on her way to put together a new, and appealing, political language in her race for the White House.

The big question now is how Republicans will match this type of policy talk, especially as it requires forms of social thinking and (eventually) spending that is unbecoming of a conservative. One concrete way out for the GOP could lie in the economy itself.

“The forces fueling the wealth of plutocrats – including easy money, a weak dollar and high oil prices – are giving way to a new world of less easy money, a strong dollar and low oil prices, which is setting the stage for a comeback of the beleaguered American middle class,” wrote Ruchir Sharma, of Morgan Stanley Investment Management, in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece. “The irony is that President Obama has recently moved ‘middle-class economics’ to the center of his agenda, and much of the political class is captivated by the idea that the government must now do something to help the middle class. But the evidence is shifting, and the poor and middle class appear to be coming back on their own,”

Another opportunity lies in the question of whether Americans are ready for that social thinking we mentioned earlier. “Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” Obama said in his State of the Union Address. “And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.”

That is persuasive language. But if we take the Affordable Care Act as a preliminary test of America’s openness to social safety nets, we can conclude that this country is likely to continue to lag behind its European neighbors in this respect. However, many Americans appear tired of old GOP “anti-socialist” rhetoric and seem to want help in the family realm. Plus, analysts are hopeful as they look at the emerging effects of Obamacare – especially because of the tangible economic benefits involved.

“America has typically asked its citizens, and especially its middle class, to take on much more risk than other wealthy countries,” says Madowitz of the Center for American Progress. “We’re seeing a growing consensus that this model isn’t working and is holding the US economy back, and there is political will to do something about it, not only out of compassion, but out of a recognition that we’re short-changing our economy. There’s clearly a sense that we need to do a better job of reducing the baseline risks middle-class Americans face if we’re going to have the innovative economy we’ve become used to.”

In the end, the keyword across the board is really “economics”. And there could be an opportunity here, not only for both parties, but for the nation as a whole. So far, Republicans have few concrete policy suggestions to address the middle-class and Obama’s push may reach a dead-end in Congress – leaving one to wonder if all of this is just a senseless war of words. But progress is often the result of a heated debate and the first step towards a truce is speaking the same language. After years of bitter partisanship, Republicans and Democrats are finally doing that on the middle class issue, even if in their own unique ways. Now let’s see if they can converge their definitions and eventually turn those words, not only into language that may win elections, but into policy as well.