What's the Matter With Main Street?

Salena Zito
|
Posted: Sep 12, 2010 12:01 AM
What's the Matter With Main Street?

BIG BEAVER, Pa. – Voters throughout river towns like this one, from the Mid-Atlantic through the Mid-West and into the Deep South, are frustrated with Washington.

Most are working-class Democrats and independents who placed their trust in Democrats in the past two election cycles.

Interesting, then, that with all of the poll numbers and focus groups available to it, Washington’s ruling class still does not understand Main Street. In fact, it wants to know what is wrong with Americans.

President Barack Obama, his advisors, congressional leaders and even many of the D.C. Beltway’s elite pundits collectively believe that voter anger among Republicans alone may cause Democrats to lose November’s midterm election.

They could not be more wrong.

Democrats are losing the confidence of Main Street Democrat and independent voters because they did not listen. It really is that simple.

Yet, instead of owning up to Democrats’ shortcomings, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell blames a GOP takeover of “wackos” and “fruit-loops” – and the president, in a major economic-policy speech, says something very un-presidential about being referred to as a “dog.”

“Obama's problem, as I see it, is partly a matter of atmospherics,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. “He has to get out among working-class voters and display his popular touch.”

Things are very bad for working-class and middle-class voters, Gitlin says, given the economic collapse on top of long-running troubles in a rusting manufacturing economy. “It seems that the White House is, belatedly, trying to address these people, as in Obama’s Cleveland speech. … Obviously, it's going to be a rough haul.”

Says Keystone College history professor Jeff Brauer: “Obama and the Democrats basically mistook their 2008 electoral victory, which was more of a vote against George W. Bush than for Democrats, as the necessary connection with the everyday American to enact their agenda.”

Because of that, they didn’t feel the need to earn the trust of Americans before they made bold policy decisions, which is why their leadership is in political trouble for this midterm election.

Brauer says this is being compounded by Obama’s aloofness.

“Good political leaders are able to emotionally connect to their constituents,” he explains. “Ronald Reagan was masterful at comforting citizens, even not being afraid to shed tears, as during the Challenger disaster.”

Bill Clinton’s ability to listen intently, and to make anyone he spoke with feel as if they were the only person in the world at that moment, rendered his “I-feel-your-pain” style believable.

On the other hand, Obama’s cool, laid-back, intellectual approach to issues and crises has hindered true connectivity with average Americans. Moreover, his dry, sarcastic humor comes across to many Americans as elitist.

The major policy disconnect that Obama and Democrats have suffered with everyday Americans is the growing federal deficit and the national debt.

“This is their fundamental misreading of the electorate,” Brauer says.

Main Street Americans have been forced for several years now to tighten their belts, to make sacrifices and to act responsibility. The nation’s unemployment rate remains intolerably high; those Americans with jobs have seen their real incomes go down. Personal expenses are on the rise, while home values have plummeted.

“So what they expect is their government to also tighten its belt, make sacrifices and act responsibly during these tough economic times,” says Brauer. “They don’t see it as a time to enact what they perceive to be big-government programs, such as health-care reform, that they believe will further run up deficits and the national debt.”

Obama's positions – whether involving government health care, more stimulus funding or cap-and-trade energy policies – may line up with the liberal side of his party and many elites in Washington, but those are not in line with most Americans. A Rasmussen Report poll issued last month backs that up; it found that 67 percent of the political class says America is headed on the right track, while 84 percent of mainstream Americans disagree.

Main Street Americans tend to be those who, as Bill Clinton once said, "Work hard and play by the rules." They are the middle and working classes who tend to work 50 weeks each year, travel around the country by car for vacation, take care of elderly parents, volunteer in their communities and churches, and try to save enough money to help their children have a better life.

And they are the America that is coming out to vote this fall.