The facts underlying the president’s claim are clear enough. According to economist Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley, the top 10 percent of U.S. earners claimed about half of all before-tax income in 2012, including capital gains. As the president noted, the top decile’s share has been increasing since the late 1970s; it is higher than at any time since just before the Great Depression, Saez’s data show.
But it is unclear whether denouncing inequality and promising to do more about it are likely to help Obama and his fellow Democrats win elections.
Economic populism is the hardy perennial recommendation of liberal pollsters and labor-union political directors. It keeps coming back, even though election results have never quite borne it out. Deeply invested in the individualistic “American dream,” and deeply divided by race, ethnicity and religion, Americans have proven less susceptible to class-based economic appeals than voters in other nations.
Still, with the 2014 elections less than a year away, many Democrats hope that the Great Recession and the prospect of lingering economic stagnation have changed attitudes.
Raising the minimum wage, for example, is a populistic theme that 76 percent of Americans support, including a solid majority of Republicans, a November Gallup poll found.