3 Holes In Obama's "Fairness" Doctrine

The president's new, populist message relies on familiar economic bogeymen.

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Your parents probably told you--life isn't always fair. But President Obama thinks he can do something about that.

As he intensifies his re-election campaign, Obama is seizing on sentiments fueling the "99 percent" movement, the frustrations of millions of families and even the Tea Party. Obama has amped up his rhetoric against crony capitalism and the privileged insiders who benefit most from it, while making the middle class sound like an endangered species. "This is a make or break moment for the middle class," he declared in a recent speech in Kansas, "and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class."

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The underlying problem is one of fairness, Obama says. "In America, we are greater together when everyone engages in fair play, everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share," he said in the speech. But the referees have checked out and the cheaters are exploiting their absence. "They want to go back to the same policies that have stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for too many years," he said. "Their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules."

The president is clearly onto something. Polls show convincingly that Americans feel the system is rigged in favor of corporate interests and their toadies in Washington. Income inequality, normally a dry topic only tweedy academics get passionate about, has become a rallying cry for earthy "Occupy" protesters in dozens of cities. While interpretations vary, economic data clearly shows that jobs, raises, vacations and the ordinary trappings of a comfortable life are getting harder to come by, especially for blue-collar workers. Americans, in general, are bummed out.

Voters are going to hear a lot about lost prosperity—and various strategies for reclaiming it—over the next year, from candidates of both parties. But Obama, as campaigner-in-chief, may not connect as strongly with voters as he would like on this emotional theme. Here are three reasons why:

He's fingering the wrong cause. The fraying of the American economy and the growing gap between rich and poor is a complicated problem that still isn't fully understood. But it's oversimplified and misleading to claim that lower earners are worse off because higher earners are better off. When Obama talks about "a deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street," he's stoking the idea that lavish Wall Street bonuses and exorbitant CEO pay are coming out of the average Joe's pocket. That's not really how the economy works.

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The two most powerful forces shaping the U.S. economy right now aren't political. They're globalization and the technology revolution. The notorious 1 percent are at the top of the heap, in most cases, because they have the kinds of skills that a technology-driven global economy rewards: deep knowledge of professional fields such as law, finance, or information systems, entrepreneurial determination, the ability to manage complex projects. Those skills don't necessarily improve the overall fortunes of mankind, but they do command high pay. Many people getting left behind, by contrast, have blue-collar or even white-collar skills that are in oversupply and can be learned easily by people anywhere. There are no walls around the economy any more, and work that can be done cheaper or better by somebody else will be.

Obama understands that education and the development of cutting-edge skills are the keys to rebuilding a strong middle class. But he's conflating that message with stale attacks on trickle-down economics, wealthy bankers and his Republican opponents in Washington. He's also giving his foes lots of ammunition for claiming that he's "anti-success" or hostile to the idea of people getting rich. That's probably not true, but Obama has put himself in the position of issuing disclaimers to assure voters that he's a true-blue capitalist. "It's not a view that says we should punish profit or success," he said in Kansas, of his own economic plan—as if rebutting his own rhetoric.

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He's letting the middle class off the hook. Obama decries the "breathtaking greed of a few." How about the many? The housing bust, which Obama blames on "mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn't afford," was also caused by millions of get-rich-quick schemers who tried to cash in on the housing bubble and made reckless decisions that jeopardized the prosperity of their own families. There are still many Americans who have unrealistic expectations of doing easy work for handsome pay. Obama's right about health insurers that "denied care to the patients who were sick," but there's also an obesity epidemic in America, with millions showing a shocking disregard for their own health.

Obama once flirted with personal accountability as a campaign and leadership theme, but he seems to have abandoned that in favor of blaming the nation's problems on a few convenient villains. Perhaps it will be politically effective. But new or refreshing, it's not.

[See 5 good ideas from 4 GOP economic plans.]

His solutions are unconvincing. Obama is generally accurate in his description of America's economic problems. The vein of disenchantment he's tapping into is thick and deep, so he's likely to hit the mark and rouse the emotions of many voters. His solutions, however, seem likely to fall flat. "We have always come together, through our government," he says, "to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed." Coming together through government--does that get you excited? Or even seem possible?

So far, Obama is mostly touting the same old stimulus ideas for re-energizing the middle class: Rebuilding infrastructure. Hiring more teachers. Doing a better job of protecting consumers. Raising taxes on the wealthy to finance tax cuts for everybody else. These are not necessarily bad ideas. But they all rely on government, which happens to be in rather ill repute at the moment. The approval rating for Congress is at a record low, and trust in all institutions, especially government, has drastically eroded over the last few years. Obama can plausibly blame some of the recent follies in Washington on intransigent Republicans, but it's not like Republicans are going anywhere. They may even have more power after the 2012 elections.

[See why a growing economy is leaving many behind.]

Voters simply don't think the government can solve problems any more. Many Americans, in fact, think the government is the problem, since it's heavily manipulated by lobbyists and the wealthy puppet-masters who pull their strings. No, it's not fair. The real question is whether anybody can change that.

Twitter: @rickjnewman

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