Polls show that while voters do not like income inequality and think the government should try to reduce it, very few consider it a high-priority issue. In January, a CBS/New York Times poll asked Americans to identify the top issue facing the country. Only 3 percent cited the income gap between the rich and poor — well below the 18 percent who listed the economy and jobs. It’s a finding consistent with many other polls over the years. Last August, the Reason-Rupe poll asked whether Congress should concentrate more on increasing economic growth or reducing income inequality. Growth won, 74 percent to 20 percent.
It’s numbers like these that explain why Mr. Obama, who just over a year ago called inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” has lately stopped emphasizing it. Instead he talks about expanding opportunity and mobility. It appears that most voters care more about whether they, and Americans generally, can get ahead than they care about whether they can keep up with the top 1 percent. More evidence for this set of priorities came in the late 1990s, when inequality was rising but middle-class wages were rising, too. The public at the time expressed satisfaction with the direction of the country.
Before taking up a theme that Mr. Obama has largely abandoned, Republicans should consider whether public opinion gave him good reason to abandon it. They should consider, also, whether they can point to any policy proposals of theirs that would do much about inequality.