You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Rich Dem, Poor Dem

Class war in Obamaland.

The health care debate has exposed the ideological tension in Barack Obama’s political coalition between moderates and liberals. But it has also offered hints of how another, less obvious divide built into the Democratic majority could wreak havoc on the administration during the years to come.

In 2008, the Democratic Party blossomed into a successful alliance of the upscale and the downscale--wealthy and needy marching hand in hand, sharing animosity to George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. The extent to which Democrats are relying on the far extremes of the income spectrum is striking. Democrats have generally performed well among low-income voters in the past, but now, the phenomenon has become more pronounced. Voters from households making less than $30,000 backed Obama by 31 points last November. That margin was 13 points higher than Jimmy Carter’s advantage over Gerald Ford with poor voters in 1976--and 21 points better than Walter Mondale’s advantage among the same demographic in 1984.

Democratic gains among the rich have been even more dramatic and, given the party’s history, surprising. Carter in 1976 and Mondale in 1984 were crushed by the wealthiest voters. Obama, by contrast, actually carried those making $200,000 or more by 6 points. True, these very affluent voters make up only 6 percent of the electorate, but Obama fared well in other upper-income categories too. Among non-Southern white voters--that is, voters living in states a Democrat must carry or have a shot at carrying to win an election--Obama claimed a majority of those making $80,000 or more. And this group makes up over 30 percent of the electorate outside the South.

Obama needed this strong showing at opposite ends of the income spectrum because he was far weaker in the middle. The two previous Democratic victors, Carter and Bill Clinton, won moderate-income voters--Carter in 1976 by 5.7 points and Clinton in 1992 and 1996 by an average of 6.5 points. Obama merely split these voters with John McCain.

If the president’s top priority were foreign affairs, the sharp class dichotomy in his coalition might not be so significant. But his agenda has clear class implications: universal health care aimed at helping the uninsured; stimulus spending heavily oriented toward the unemployed; and a financial bailout that aided Wall Street while enraging lower-income voters. And so, while the rich-poor alliance was enough to get Obama to the White House, there is reason to wonder how long--or how well--a coalition divided so sharply along economic lines can survive the process of governing.

You can see the income-based split over health care most clearly in poll numbers. In a recent Gallup poll, those making less than $30,000 urged their congressmen to vote for health care reform by 13 points; those making $75,000 or more took the opposite position by 16 points. But you can also see it in the behavior of Democratic politicians representing wealthy states. Reacting to a suggestion that rich areas of the country are spending too much on Medicare under the current system, Senator John Kerry said, “States like Massachusetts are concentrated centers of medical innovation where cutting-edge treatments are tested and some of the nation’s finest doctors are trained. This work might cost a little more, but it benefits the entire country.” For her part, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California cut right to the chase: If health care reform means California is going to take it on the chin, she said, “I can’t vote for it.”

Then there was the financial bailout. The emergence of the rich wing of the Democratic coalition has added a new faction to the party’s already-long roster of special interest groups. During the 2008 election cycle, individuals and PACs associated with the securities and investment industry gave $88.6 million to Democrats and $67.5 million to the party of big business. The single biggest recipient of these donations was the president, whose campaign raked in $14.8 million. The influence of this faction seemed discernible in Obama’s handling of the Wall Street crisis. Even though the administration initially signaled that it was prepared to take a tough stance--by significantly consolidating the maze of government bodies that regulate the financial sector--when push came to shove, its determination quickly dissolved. And, in July, the House Financial Services committee put off tackling a rather modest reform proposed by the administration: the creation of a consumer financial-protection agency. The measure (which the committee is expected to take up again next month) faced overwhelming industry opposition.

It isn’t just economic issues and health care that have class implications. The environment, for example, could plausibly split wealthy Democrats from poor ones. Although the version of cap-and-trade passed by the House goes out of its way to soften the impact on low-income Americans--providing subsidies to the poor to offset increases in the price of carbon--the environment is still widely seen as a priority of the upscale, coastal wing of the Democratic Party. And if, as seems possible, cap-and-trade comes to dominate Obama’s agenda in the coming months, poor voters could begin to wonder why the wealthier part of the coalition is garnering all the attention at the expense of other issues--for instance card-check, long a top priority for organized labor.

The point is not that class divisions on any of these issues will single-handedly undo the opportunity to pass a given piece of legislation. It is also quite possible that the combined weight of these rich-poor splits won’t end up doing the administration much overall harm. And, even if Obama’s coalition ends up wracked by class-based antagonism, Democrats may be able to put off a day of reckoning because of Republican disarray.

Still, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that this intraparty schism based on income might create headaches for Obama. The Democrats have a substantial majority on Capitol Hill, but, with few Republicans willing to break ranks, any Democratic faction has the ability to wield veto power more or less whenever it wants. Obviously, these factions break down along many different lines--but class is certainly one of them.

Moreover, the Democrats’ class problem goes beyond the Obama presidency. Looking down the road, the party needs to think about whether a long-term coalition so disproportionately reliant on the far reaches of the income spectrum is sustainable. And if it isn’t? That leaves only one thing for Democrats to do: redouble their efforts to once again become the party of the middle class.

Thomas B. Edsall is a special correspondent at The New Republic.