Robert J. Samuelson: “Saving” the Middle Class

Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much, but they do agree on this: the middle class. At their conventions, the two parties will compete fiercely for its support. Republicans will accuse Barack Obama of destroying the middle class through policies perpetuating high joblessness and feeble economic growth. Democrats will portray Mitt Romney as a tool of the rich who doesn’t understand the middle class. To the victor may go the election, because “saving the middle class” has arguably become the campaign’s defining issue.

Obama vs. Romney 2012

Obama vs. Romney 2012 (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

Samuelson makes a number of salient observations about the middle class. I think they’re credible claims because I think Samuelson himself is credible. No relation to the Nobel prize-winner Paul Samuelson (about whom I have a different opinion), this Samuelson has surprisingly overcome a number of obstacles to retain his realistic view of the world, including a degree in government from Harvard and a long history with the rag Newsweek.

He thinks both Romney and Obama are pandering, hoping to generate sympathy, and votes, from those who consider themselves middle class:

The idea that anyone can “save” the middle class assumes that it’s in of disappearing, which it isn’t, and that presidents possess sufficient powers to resurrect it, which they don’t.

Still, the symbolism is potent because most Americans equate the middle class with the kind of society we are and ought to be. It is a society where hard work and personal responsibility are rewarded—where “getting ahead” is expected; where economic security and social stability are enjoyed; and where privilege is minimized.

It’s true: the middle class has been battered and bruised by the Great Recession, and it continues to be. Their net worth has been reduced by nearly 40 percent over the last few years, more are unemployed or under-employed and more are living in houses with mortgages bigger than the value of the house itself (and yet they continue to make the mortgage payments rather than walking away).

What’s under attack, according to Samuelson, are two core beliefs:

  • that hard work ensures “getting ahead,” and
  • that being middle class provides security.

In addition, a major part of the middle class is already beholden through government handouts to the other part of the middle class: the workers versus the beneficiaries of government transfer programs. And so here is where the perfidy of the politicians—both Obama and Romney—is exposed: cut entitlement programs and tick off the beneficiaries (who vote), or raise and tick of the taxpayers (who vote). They’re promising to avoid doing either.

I share Samuelson’s optimism:

Personal responsibility and a strong work ethic still matter and suggest a durable middle class. It will survive today’s economic setbacks—and political pandering.

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