By Playing On Envy, Obama Asks Americans to Abandon Aspirations

Even with poll support, passing Obama's deficit proposals will be a tough fight.

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Bruce Bartlett amasses polling data that shows Americans, by a comfortable 2-1 margin, support raising taxes to reduce the deficit, as opposed to spending cuts alone.

On seeing this, Andrew Sullivan wonders how President Obama could possibly lose the coming political argument with Republicans over the eventual terms of the "super committee" compromise.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Before the Great Recession, such confidence would have seemed wildly misplaced, for a social-psychological reason that has long bedeviled liberals who were frustrated that non-rich Americans favored fiscal policies that disproportionately benefited the rich.

Simply put, many Americans believed that they, too, would become rich.

Check out this 2003 Wall Street Journal editorial, headlined "Is This A Great Country?", in delighted response to Gallup polling data that found that while "only 2 percent of Americans consider themselves rich today ... a whopping 31 percent expect to become rich someday."

[Read Robert Schlesinger: Obama's Deficit Speech Marks a Compromise With Reality]

In classic WSJ fashion, the editorial concluded:

We suppose this could all be chalked up as the triumph of hope over experience (especially for the 8 percent of those over age 65 who still think they'll get rich). But we think these expectations have more to do with the broad American belief that our society offers opportunity and upward mobility. Class-war rhetoric may work in the more socially and financially immobile cultures of Europe, but Americans understand that people make and lose fortunes here all the time. Americans vote not on their envy but their aspirations—something that maybe even our politicians will figure out someday.

A "someday" of sorts has arrived, and, understandably, Americans' expectations of future wealth has diminished. The roughly 3-in-10 who saw riches on the horizon—a number the WSJ, perhaps overeagerly, called "whopping"—is down to 2-in-10, according to an AP/CNBC poll conducted last month.

This creates an opening for Obama—but at a cost. Against the sunny Reaganite mold that he has falteringly tried to make his own, the president instead will have to play to voters' envy, not their aspirations (to borrow the WSJ's terms).

[See a photo gallery of Ronald Reagan.]

Sure, he may smooth this over by appealing to notions of fairness and, as he did today, to the hard reality of "math." He will make arguments about "opportunity" and "upward mobility" being cherished, but complicated, features of American life that require government investment and intervention; about a lack of regulation leading to concentrations of wealth that become a visible hand that squashes social dynamism.

But to succeed, Obama will have to overturn three decades' worth of conventional wisdom. In effect, he's going to have to tell ordinary Americans to quit being such Horatio Alger-style suckers.

This will be a lot harder than Bruce Bartlett and Andrew Sullivan suppose.