Though President Obama keeps insisting that income inequality is the "defining challenge of our time," most Americans beg to differ.
"What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" asked Gallup in a nationwide survey this month. Dissatisfaction with the federal government — its incompetence, abuse, dysfunction, venality — topped the list, with 21 percent of respondents saying it was their key concern. The overall state of the economy was second, at 18 percent. Unemployment and health care were tied for third, with each cited by 16 percent as the nation's most pressing problem.
How many shared Obama's view that the gap between rich and poor is the issue that should concern us most? Four percent.
The president has been banging this populist drum for years. As a candidate in 2008, he famously told "Joe the Plumber" that it was good for everybody when the government acts to "spread the wealth around." In 2011 he went to Osowatomie, Kan., site of a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt a century earlier, to condemn the "gaping inequality" in modern America, where those at the top of the economic ladder are "wealthier than ever before," while everyone else struggles with growing bills and stagnant paychecks. He told the Center for American Progress last December that "increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream," and warned that America's basic bargain — "if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead" — is disintegrating.
Class-war rhetoric excites the Democratic base. There have always been some voters for whom nothing is more repellent than a growing gap between the rich and the non-rich, or a stronger justification for more government regulation. But most Americans don't react that way. "When is the last time you heard a shoeshine person or a taxicab driver complain about inequality?" asks economist John C. Goodman. "For most people, having a lot of rich people around is good for business."