The state of the middle class is: Uneasy

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Sizing up a young United States two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville favorably noted “an innumerable crowd…not exactly rich, nor yet quite poor” that held an economic stake in the nation-- and were, therefore, key to democracy itself. He was talking about a middle class.

This week President Obama, Democrats and Republicans addressed the current middle class unease – a shorthand for which, inequality, is related but not interchangeable - with a renewed urgency. They have the obvious economic challenge before them and, perhaps, a political one: convincing America’s middle class that a dysfunctional Washington can actually do something.

If politics is really all about who gets what, then here’s a chart showing who is seen as getting what from each of the parties, at least when people think in middle-class terms. Republicans say Democrats are for the poor; Democrats think Republicans are for the rich. That doesn't make it easier for either to sell compromise back to their bases. Meanwhile, as has long been the case, almost all Americans see themselves as middle class.

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Importantly, there isn’t much difference today in how Republicans and Democrats see themselves, in that they’re each equally likely to call themselves middle and working. It’s all part of a larger disconnect and a key factor behind mistrust of Washington.  

Democrats could have a particular trouble in this regard with independents, many of whom think the administration favors either the poor (21 percent) or the rich (28 percent) as opposed to the middle class (17 percent) or treating all equally (26 percent). Independents who think the administration doesn’t favor the middle class above others are non-college graduates – usually, a working-class group for whom the party has to compete, and hard. They also see the income gap in the U.S. growing larger.

The president will reportedly talk of this in terms of opportunity, rather than outcome (i.e., inequality per se.) His base is pessimistic about those opportunities – more Democrats now say only the rich, not anyone, can get ahead – as are independents, marginally.

Outlook has taken a hit in other ways, too. Just a short time ago Democrats were unusually buoyant when, in the run-up to Mr. Obama’s re-election, 51 percent of them said the future for the next generation of Americans looked better, an historically high figure probably fueled by campaign excitement. That view is back down to 31 percent in our latest poll, and we say “back” because it’s more in line with trend levels for Democrats over the last twenty years, though one cannot help notice the drop. So as the president approaches the State of the Union - not a political speech, but one that can set a tone for a year - it underlines the challenge his party faces rekindling that kind of optimism, at least among their base.

Republicans, for their part, are hardly immune. In fact, fewer than half of Republicans think their own congressional caucus treats all groups (rich, middle, and poor) equally, and only 17 percent of Republicans think congressional Republicans favor the middle class.

Only a scant 7 percent of Republicans think the future for the next generation will be better than now, and a striking 68 percent say it will be worse. That’s partly, but not entirely, a partisan reaction to the question. If it was entirely, we’d expect to have seen the opposite when Republicans held the White House, but we didn’t.  In President Bush’s years, Republicans were relatively more optimistic, but not especially so.

It’s always a tough balance for the parties because despite the perceptions, neither party’s coalition is actually relegated to voters of only one income level. Nearly half of Democrats’ national vote came from households under $50,000 while one-quarter of it is from $100,000-plus.  And one-third of the GOP’s total national House vote in 2012 came from those in sub- $50,000 households and Republicans won white voters under $50,000. (Income admittedly being only a proxy for perceived class here, but the best we have on hand.)

And to that point: while Republican voters do not believe the government’s job is to deal with inequality, per se, there is a portion of their base also concerned about fairness today. That's not the same as inequality, of course, but rather speaks to more fundamental ideas of opportunity and outlook. 34 percent of Republicans said the current income distribution in the U.S. was not fair and should be more even. They tend to earn less, and are more apt to think Congressional Republicans favor the rich; and that the income gap is expanding. But they are Republicans and while not a majority, one-third - in an evenly divided nation – can carry outsized weight.

In all, the percent of Americans that think the future looks worse for the next generation is now the highest in nearly 20 years. That's measuring a broader question than just an economic outlook, but it does cut to the core of the American Dream, which is often defined less by outcomes on the macro level and more by prospects for mobility from person to person, or across generations. Studies show that mobility is still still possible, but that chances vary greatly by circumstance and by place in the country, and can be less than other nations. Still, perception is often as good as reality, at least in the political sphere. 

And in purely political terms the middle class is still the largest crowd, though its numbers are less innumerable and sometimes even the subject of debate; many show it’s shrinking. But it remains where most of the voters are, and their unease is real. So if you want an early line on who’ll do well in the next cycle, watch for whether either party can start to reverse that.

Jennifer De Pinto contributed to this report.

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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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