In 2012, Republicans were dead wrong about President Obama. With unemployment over 8 percent and the long-delayed economic recovery nowhere in sight, they assumed that he would lose to anyone they nominated. Obama had promised “hope and change,” but he had provided no hope, and the change was all for the worse. Even the liberal mainstream media expected that “anybody but Obama” would win in November.
Yet the president cruised to re-election. The critical swing voters — blue collar Americans from industrial and rural communities with generally conservative values — swung for Obama or stayed home. The people hurt most by the president’s disastrous policies chose him over Mitt Romney.
In the post-election polling, one amazing fact jumped out: Those who voted for a candidate because he “cared more” about people like them chose President Obama over Governor Romney by 81 to 18 percent. Even if you win voters over on your governing philosophy, leadership, and managerial competence, it’s hard to win an election if they think you don’t care about them.
In my campaign for president two years ago, I traveled to corners of this country that national politicians rarely visit. I went to rural communities with double-digit unemployment, the Gulf Coast where they are still recovering from Katrina, and the mill towns of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin where manufacturers are fighting for their lives against foreign competition and a hostile federal government. I went to the oil and gas fields where they’re drilling as fast as they can in the fear that President Obama might shut them down.
I heard from hardworking Americans worried about losing their jobs. Their towns are the America I grew up in and where I’ve spent most of my life. That proud America, which once thrived but is now tragically broken, is largely forgotten in today’s political debates. In these places, millions of blue-jeaned workers have been left behind and see little hope for the future. Skilled laborers who once had good salaries and pensions now seek part-time jobs at big-box retail stores or rely on public assistance.
Republicans like to quote John F. Kennedy’s observation that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But what about the millions of Americans whose boats are full of holes?
Working families want to believe there is still opportunity for a good life in America. They seek stability and security. They want their children to go to good schools, get decent jobs, and build families of their own.
Above all, they want reassurance that despite these hard times, the American dream is still alive for them. But neither party seems to hear them. When will politicians recognize that these working people are just as important to our economy and our country as the entrepreneur or corporate executive?
It wasn’t that long ago when someone without a college degree could earn a decent and steady income for his family in exchange for hard work. That stability made for thriving communities where churches, Little Leagues, and Boy Scout troops fostered the strong values and the work ethic that underpinned American life. With good incomes, Americans could afford new cars, appliances, and trips to Disneyland. In a virtuous circle, demand for those goods kept others working and the economy strong.
Over the past few decades, however, bad corporate and labor leadership, a growing regulatory and tax burden, and competition from low-wage countries have made America less competitive. Many of the jobs that supported our communities are gone. And that’s a disaster for the 70 percent of Americans who do not graduate from college.
Working Americans now enjoy fewer of the opportunities that we once took for granted. The disappearance of long-term, steady jobs — the kind that can support a family — has brought not only economic hardship but a host of social pathologies. The teenage mother, the high school drop-out, the drug addict, or the convicted felon will find it almost impossibly difficult to escape a life of poverty. It’s a vicious circle that is shattering American communities.
Blue collar Americans gave their votes to Barack Obama because he said he cared about them. But the only people who are better off in Obama’s America are his buddies on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, and in Hollywood. Democrats continue to insist that they’re the party of the little guy, but it’s getting harder for working families to believe that plutocrats like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are on their side.
The spectacular failure of its Democratic opponents is an opportunity for the GOP to pull this economy out of the ditch. But Republicans need to remember the old adage that “people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It’s important to encourage job creators, to replace Obamacare, and to control government spending. But if we don’t step up for America’s working families, we’ll never win another national election. And we won’t deserve to.
Rick Santorum is a former United States Senator from Pennsylvania and Republican presidential candidate, and co-founder of Patriot Voices.