By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / May 1, 2009
WASHINGTON - Hints of a class divide are emerging in voter impressions of Barack Obama, according to a new poll that shows wealthy voters far more skeptical of his economic agenda than poorer ones.
The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center to gauge Obama's popularity around his 100th day in office this week, demonstrates broad popularity for his young presidency. But while 71 percent of voters earning less than $30,000 annually approve of Obama's performance, only 58 percent of those with incomes over $75,000 do. Barely half of the wealthier voters applaud Obama's handling of the economy, compared with over three-quarters of those in the lowest stratum.
The findings suggest that Obama's agenda of activist government - including unprecedented federal involvement in the corporate world - are more likely to spark concerns from upper-income voters than lower-income ones.
"A good part of [the class divide] may have to do with a negative reaction to some of Obama's policies: taxing the rich, most specifically, and government exercising too much influence over the economy," said Andrew Kohut, who directed the survey.
This month Obama declared that his budget, which would reduce the burden on 95 percent of taxpayers, amounted to "the most progressive tax cut in American history." He has described plans to shift more of the tax burden onto high-income workers and small-business owners who received substantial tax cuts during George W. Bush's presidency. Obama, who earned $2.6 million last year, has said that taxes on the wealthy will be no higher than they were under Bill Clinton.
Yet Obama has proposed changes that directly attack the modern culture of wealth in the United States. He would raise taxes on money earned overseas and through hedge-fund partnerships. He tried unsuccessfully to scale back the deduction for charitable contributions, which is most largely utilized by the wealthy.
"We're also doing away with the unnecessary giveaways that have thrown our tax code out of balance," Obama said at an event acknowledging "tax day" on April 15.
Despite having stuck similar themes during his campaign, Obama drew substantial support from upper-income voters, accelerating the gradual movement of upscale suburbanites into the Democratic coalition. Obama ran even with Republican John McCain among voters making more than $75,000, a massive increase over his party's performance four years earlier, when John Kerry lost that group by double-digits. Obama carried voters earning more than $200,000 by six percent. In 1976, Republican Gerald Ford carried 10 of the 12 wealthiest states in the country; last year, Obama won them all.
A poll last week by Allstate and National Journal showed that Obama was slightly less popular among those with business-oriented jobs than with the broader electorate, although he still commanded impressive numbers for a Democrat. Fifty-eight percent of the self-employed, 55 percent of "knowledge workers," and 53 percent of senior business managers approved of Obama's performance.
Indeed, Obama has maintained a friendly posture toward the business world even as he seeks a greater role for government in it. He gave top posts to those with Wall Street ties, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and economic adviser Lawrence Summers. He has presented his support for federal bailouts in the financial and automotive sectors as a way of maintaining vitality in those industries, and describes the need for changes to healthcare and energy policy as a matter of competitiveness.
"Obama enjoyed an enormous amount of support from those upper-class elites, and the people he had surrounded himself with are hardly populist in inclination," said Steven Fraser, a historian and author of "Wall Street: America's Dream Palace." "Obama is operating, in many respects, in a probusiness way and acting very gingerly about executive pay and government control of corporations."
Kohut noted that the disparity could simply reflect of polarized opinions along party lines: the president is wildly popular among Democrats but predictably disliked by Republicans, who still attract a higher share of the wealthiest voters. His lowest approval ratings in the Pew poll were among the wealthiest group on the issue of the deficit: only 38 percent of those voters approved of Obama's budgeting.
"There's something called buyer's remorse," said Adam Geller, a Republican pollster. "There's a little more anger and frustration among people who are making incomes above average."
Republicans say the class gap on budgetary issues may reflect their focus on the fiscal implications of Obama's proposals. While some Republicans have asserted that the deficit spending could trigger inflation - which would have a direct effect on low-income earners - party leaders have usually repeated the charge that Obama "taxes too much, spends too much, and borrows too much."
"Sometimes messages take a while to penetrate, and we're still on Obama's honeymoon," said Alex Conant, a consultant who advises the Republican National Committee. "As the threat of higher taxes and inflation becomes more imminent, you'll see a wider swath of the public will become more concerned with Obama's profligate spending."
So far, the strongest organized opposition to Obama - culminating in a series of rambunctious "tea party" demonstrations held nationwide on April 15 - was incubated at the Chicago Board of Trade by a former derivatives trader who now reports for the financial network CNBC. "This is America!" exclaimed Rick Santelli, as traders joined him in lampooning an Obama proposal to intervene in the mortgage market.