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Obama Pushes "Fairness," but Have Independents Tuned Out?

Obama Pushes "Fairness," but Have Independents Tuned Out?

By Alexis Simendinger - April 10, 2012


What if President Obama delivers a speech Tuesday in the Sunshine State pegged to a "fairness" message that is missing the mark with an indispensable bloc of American voters he most needs to reach by November -- especially in a battleground state?

Obama's message of taxing the rich to help the middle class may rally his base, but persuadable independent voters may wonder if the president is plugged into what really concerns them, according to the results of a new survey of swing state independent voters commissioned by Third Way, a centrist think tank.

The White House and the president’s campaign team said Monday that Obama’s theme this week will be “tax fairness,” tied to his proposed millionaire surtax known as the “Buffett rule,” which is scheduled for an uphill Senate vote next week.

But “fairness” in this context may not appeal to independents in the same way it does to liberals, which means the president may be shrinking his megaphone rather than amplifying it.

“Tax fairness is unlikely to either help or hurt the president with swing independents,” said Matt Bennett, Third Way’s senior vice president for public affairs, referring to a term the think tank used to describe persuadable independents up for grabs by either nominee.

“Most of them -- like most voters -- support raising taxes on the wealthy,” he told RCP. “But this just isn’t their major concern. They don’t believe that their lives will be made fundamentally better, or that the American economy will get back on top simply by taxing the rich a bit more. Our research shows that swing independents are keenly interested in messages and policies about restoring American economic health and providing more opportunity for them, but especially for their kids.”

(The survey also found that Obama and Mitt Romney are tied among independents in the 12 battleground states; that the president is viewed favorably by 49 percent of this group, and unfavorably by 47; and that Romney’s numbers are under water -- 41 percent favorable to 47 percent unfavorable.)

Obama wants to gain political traction in battleground states by suggesting that Romney and congressional Republicans are more interested in protecting tax benefits for the wealthy than in rectifying the economic inequities experienced by middle-class working Americans. His argument is not that the revenue savings will produce more jobs or dramatically reduce deficits, but that Americans deserve a “fair shake and a fair deal” they won’t get from a Republican in the White House.

But the findings in the Third Way poll, and in focus group sessions conducted this year by the organization, were that persuadable independent voters do not see the deck stacked against them, and their definitions of tax fairness include levying a flat tax on everyone, or taxing low-income earners who pay no taxes, more than raising taxes on the wealthy.

The responses were reminders of the centrist themes President Clinton struck during his re-election bid in 1996, when he repeatedly described American values of “opportunity, responsibility and community.”

Obama’s “fairness” theme appeared to resonate among white senior voters, and with voters in congressional swing districts occupied by Republicans, a Democracy Corps poll conducted soon after the president’s State of the Union address discovered. Democratic consultant James Carville and pollster Stanley Greenberg found that Obama’s insistence that the economy was rebounding slowly and jobs returning was not as effective as a re-election theme, in part because many respondents were still searching for those jobs.

A majority of 57 percent in the Third Way survey said they view American society as fair, and they put income inequality near the bottom of their worries. Sixty-two percent said they are “doing better than the average American.” What they care about, according to the responses, is a president with a plan to provide economic opportunity so that Americans can succeed through hard work in the future. Opportunity, they found, trumps fairness.

“Nearly six-in-ten aren’t confident that the next generation will be able to find good jobs, and only 8 percent are strongly confident,” the Third Way report found. “Swing Independents are searching for leaders who will articulate a positive vision for the future -- one where the American economy is back on top and the next generation can achieve the American Dream. While the fairness framework does not feed this need, an economic opportunity message answers these deep concerns about the future.”

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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