Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign trumpeted hope for the future, but his legacy may include presiding over the withering of the American Dream. Belief that the American Dream is possible has dropped by nearly 20 points since his election, falling just below one-half of U.S. adults.
My research since 1998 about the American Dream has shown its definition evolving away from material wealth and toward spiritual happiness (both secular and religious.) So this drop in belief hints that our economic and political problems are shaking American confidence about the future and even our way of life.
This should be an enormous problem for a president seeking re-election, especially since Republican opposition makes it nearly impossible to stimulate employment in ways Obama would prefer. However, stridency from that opposition and weakness of the Republican field put Obama in much better position than the situation should allow.
And here is another twist on why Obama can survive this national malaise. Demographic groups loyal to Republicans are more likely to believe in the American Dream than are Democratic base voters. In 2008, Obama carried voters who did not believe they could achieve the American Dream by two-to-one, lost to John McCain those who did believe in the dream and still won the election. Our July 15-18 IBOPE Zogby interactive poll showed the largest drops in belief coming from groups most likely to vote against Obama.
Let’s look at our data to give you a better understanding of these dynamics. In an interactive poll taken immediately after Obama’s 2008 election, 68% of adults said it is possible for them and their families to achieve the American Dream, and 18% said it did not exist. Almost as many (62%) agreed most middle class families could achieve it. Our poll taken a week ago showed 49.7% believing the dream was achievable for their families, 30% saying it did not exist and 44% agreeing it is achievable for most middle class families.
As you would expect, confidence to achieve the American Dream rises with household income, but changes from 2008 to now don’t consistently follow according to income. The group whose confidence has been least changed (down five percentage points to 67%) and is now highest is the middle income household of $75,000 to $100,000. (In households making $25,000 or less, 33% still believe the dream is within their reach.)
There was little change over three years in how people defined the American Dream. In 2008, 38% defined it as material goods and 43% said it was spiritual happiness. Now, 40% choose the material and 37% spiritual. Above I suggested our loss of national confidence is about more than just economic well-being. The reason is our finding that those who define the American Dream as material are only slightly more likely to say it doesn’t exist than are those who define it as spiritual happiness. It seems we have both an economic and psychological recession.
In terms of political affilaition, Republican leaning groups show the largest declines in belief in the dream. Here are percentages from 2008 and now: Republicans 82% to 60%, those 65 and older 69% to 36% and conservatives 83% to 57%. Democratic base voters also showed a loss of faith in achieving the American Dream between the two polls, but not as great: Democrats 57% to 46%, liberals 52% to 40% and ages 18-29 69% to 55%. Among independent voters, their totals went from 63% in 2008 to 45% now.
Independent are the voters Obama is appealing to in the debt limit debate by trying to show he is the one willing to compromise and even go against his base to win an agreement and avert default.
That is a good political approach to governance in a time of such voter disaffection. Soon it will be time to go into full campaign mode. Obama came into the presidency at a low point and his ascendancy was in many was similar to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Democrats hoped he would use government as FDR did to ignite the economy. Instead, his first term now more closely resembles that of Harry Truman – recession, foreign threats galore, and challenges to whether this President is up to the job. Truman’s party split on the left and right, but he ultimately ran against a “do-nothing” Congress controlled by Republicans. Obama is expecting liberals to forgive his compromises and vote to throw out Republicans who have opposed him at nearly every turn. Rather than go on the defensive, Obama will have to take a page from Truman by giving hell to Republicans and trying again to give hope to an electorate that is fast losing it.