From what little I know, Greg Sargent has put his finger on the strategic pulse of the administration and the Democratic Party going into the next election (my emphasis):
“[N]ow Dems think the battle has finally shifted on to turf favorable to them. Dems believe the public’s rising concern about inequality has created an environment in which their class-based argument will have newfound resonance. As Chuck Schumer said recently, Dems think this rising anxiety is rooted in a fundamental shift in the public’s perceptions of the economy: That the bottom has fallen out from under the middle class because the old rules — work hard, and you’ll get ahead — are no longer operative for anyone but those at the very top.”When you boil this down to a campaign pitch, it means that Democrats from the president on down will be telling voters that raising taxes on high-earning families isn’t just a painful necessity dictated by hard times, but a matter of simple decency that Republicans oppose only because they’re shameless shills for rich people. The corollary is that it would be shameful of the Democrats not to insist on raising tax rates on families in the upper income brackets. That suggests how much work the notion that there has been “a fundamental shift in the public’s perceptions of the economy” is doing in Sargent’s formulation.
Recall that in 2009-10, nothing was stopping the Democrats from repealing the Bush tax cuts for upper-income families while keeping those for middle-class families in place, or at least dramatizing their differences with Republicans in this respect by making them filibuster a bill to that effect. The fact that didn’t happen in the run-up to the 2010 elections suggests that Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership had concluded that voters wouldn’t be inclined to hold the Republicans accountable for their shamelessness or the Democrats accountable for their shamefulness.
That suggestion was made all the more credible in the lame duck congressional session after the election when Obama and congressional Democrats consented to an extension of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich.” The bump the president received in the polls after the deal was done suggests that they then had a pretty decent handle on the state of public opinion. That's what made Obama willing to take the flack fired in his direction by his liberal base.
As far as I know the standards of simple decency haven’t changed since then. So how do you explain the Democrats' newfound sense of shame and outrage at Republican shamelessness? Can it really be that they’re responding to a sudden change in public perceptions? It’s not as if the issue of government insolvency, and the vexing trade-offs implied by spending cuts and tax increases, weren’t already on the table before the 2010 elections—if they weren’t, Obama wouldn’t have appointed the Simpson-Bowles Commission to neutralize it as an election issue. You wouldn’t think either that public values could change so completely that quickly, or that experienced Democratic politicians could have so badly misconstrued public opinion going into a pivotal election.
So it’s not very plausible, I submit, that running on the issue of distributive fairness could have been a bad idea in 2010, but suddenly become a good one now. The liberal base of the Democratic Party always thought the Bush tax cuts were not just ill-advised but shameful, but it couldn’t get the party leadership to listen to it. The thing that has now changed is that Obama and other party leaders are doubling down ideologically because they're listening. Maybe that's because they've decided that they were wrong before, or maybe it's just a matter of people with liberal instincts realizing that their backs are against the wall and figuring that, if they're going to go down, they may as well go down swinging.
If running on distributive fairness proves to be a good decision on the leadership's part it will be because the Democratic leadership is doing this election cycle what it should have been doing during the last one. If it turns out badly, the damage to liberalism as we know it may be irreparable.