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How Obama lost the middle class

·Senior Columnist

A gradually improving economy—and plunging gas prices--have finally brought President Obama a modest boost in his long-depressed job-approval rating. But the voters who are least impressed with Obama are the middle-income Americans every politician needs to succeed—and the very people whose interests Obama claims to be fighting for.

The latest poll numbers from Gallup put Obama’s approval rating at 46%, the highest reading since the summer of 2013. But there are telling disparities among income groups that help explain why Obama’s Democratic party lost control of both houses of Congress during the last two midterm elections, and why Obama may be able to accomplish little during his last two years in office.

One of the emerging ironies of the Obama presidency, in fact, is the sagging fortunes of the American middle class while those on either end — rich and poor alike — have arguably fared better under Obama. The poor have been direct beneficiaries of many Obama programs — most notably, Obamacare—while the rich have benefited from a roaring stock market that has helped restore all the wealth lost during the 2008 financial meltdown, and then some. Middle earners, however, still face soaring costs for healthcare and education, while incomes have stagnated and many are sliding sideways or drifting backward.

It’s no surprise, then, that Obama is most popular with the lowest earners, with an approval rating of 52% among people earning less than $2,000 per month. That’s the highest approval rating of four income brackets. Obama’s lowest marks come not from the wealthy, as conventional wisdom might suggest, but from middle earners with incomes between $5,000 and $7,499 per month, who only give Obama a 44% approval rating.

A breakdown of the numbers since 2009 shows that the president has enjoyed higher support among low earners than among middle earners for all but four weeks of his presidency, as this chart illustrates:

Obama Job Approval Rating 2009 - 2015
Obama Job Approval Rating 2009 - 2015

There's obviously nothing wrong with helping the underprivileged, as Obama has. But since low-income workers are least likely to vote, Obama’s strongest constituency is a group with minimal political power or ability to support the president’s agenda. Many middle earners who do vote, meanwhile, feel (legitimately or not) that Obama has shifted resources from the middle to the lower class, in a zero-sum game with one loser for every winner.

That's unfair to Obama, who has backed many middle-class priorities, such as better schools, ongoing jobs programs, affordable health care, elaborate consumer protections and cheaper college tuition. Obama will no doubt tout his middle-class agenda during the upcoming State of the Union address. Yet most of his proposals have been mere talking points, with Congressional Republicans blocking many of Obama’s plans. The things Obama has been able to accomplish, meanwhile, tend to benefit lower earners most of all, while those in the middle feel little or no relief. Here are four reasons Obama has lost the confidence of middle-class voters.

Obamacare doesn’t help those in the middle. Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, provides generous subsidies to low earners, but aid levels decline as incomes rise and phase out altogether around income levels of $47,000 for an individual and $95,000 for a four-person family. The law does virtually nothing to lower healthcare costs for people who don’t qualify for subsidies.

Meanwhile, the cost of medical care and prescription drugs has risen about 5% per year under Obama, as wages have grown by less than 2%. The cost of health insurance has risen by less than 2% annually during Obama's six years, but that’s partly because deductibles, co-payments and other out-of-pocket expenses have soared . Obama pursued a noble goal by seeking to make health care coverage available to more people—but he hasn’t done anything, really, to help families above the Obamacare subsidy levels finance medical care.

College is more expensive than ever. College tuition and fees have risen by 5.2% per year under Obama, making the cost of higher education another huge middle-class expense that’s growing faster than wages. That’s not really Obama’s fault, since the government doesn’t control what colleges charge. Obama is keenly aware of the problem and has tried to address it, by signing legislation boosting federal aid for students and taking other steps that might someday help lower the cost of getting a degree. Yet the amount of student debt outstanding has soared by 58% under Obama, to a staggering $1.3 trillion, according to the latest Federal Reserve numbers. Middle-class families are mortgaging their future to pay for college, with the outcome uncertain, at best.

Obama’s stimulus spending didn’t trickle down far enough, or fast enough. Obama has basically admitted he overpromised on the $840 billion stimulus bill that was the first big piece of legislation he signed in 2009. Jobs returned far more slowly than Obama and many economists predicted, and when they did, many paid less than the jobs lost during the 2007-09 recession. There was -- and is -- no silver-bullet solution to economic problems that formed long before Obama took office, and would have bedeviled any president, Republican or Democrat. But Obama clearly thought the 2009 stimulus plan would get the job done, which is why he turned to health care and other matters after it passed. Mission unaccomplished, as another top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, admitted late last year.

Obama’s other priorities don’t help the middle class today. Obama may well establish a lasting legacy as the first modern president to make a difference on global warming and other environmental issues. If so, it will help Americans for generations to come. But it doesn’t put money in anybody’s pocket today, and Americans consistently say environmental concerns are less important than jobs and economic issues.

Other Obama priorities, such as more muscular consumer protection, federal support for high-tech manufacturing and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, may ultimately help the middle class too, but for now these initiatives are essentially invisible to ordinary Americans. If they truly work, the best evidence may be an absence of problems down the road, something that’s mighty tough to claim credit for.

Obama is likely to get a natural lift during the last two years of his presidency, as the unemployment rate--which was 7.8% when he took office in 2009--declines further from its current 5.6% level. Wage gains ought to kick in and middle-class living standards should finally begin to recover. But he may still leave the middle class struggling, and it may be Obama’s successor who ultimately gets credit for the widespread return of prosperity—if it actually happens.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.