Jonathan Chait

Obama's Limits And Anti-Government Sentiment

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First Read wades into the debate over liberal disappointment with the Obama presidency:

When the liberal blogosphere confab, Netroots Nation, kicks off tomorrow in Las Vegas, it will inevitably further the "Why are progressives disappointed in Obama?" storyline. In the past few months, liberal commentators have bemoaned that the public option wasn’t included in the health care law, that the financial reform legislation -- which President Obama will sign into law today -- isn’t strong enough, and that Gitmo still isn't closed. The Nation's Eric Alterman even penned a widely discussed essay explaining these disappointments on a system that's stacked against progressives. But here is something to consider: It's the country -- not the system -- that's stacked against liberals and progressives.

From 1989 (after Reagan's presidency) to now, the most stable data in the NBC/WSJ poll has been that roughly one-fifth of the country identifies as being liberal, while one-third identifies being conservative. Even in 2008, when Obama decisively won the presidency, the average in the poll was 25% liberal, 36% conservative. And in 1996, when Bill Clinton easily won re-election, it was 22% liberal, 34% conservative. For Democrats, this means that if they want to win national elections, they need to win about 60% of the self-described moderate vote -- which Obama did in '08 and congressional Dems did in '06, per the exit polls. By comparison, however, John Kerry got 54% of the moderate vote in 2004.

So the bigger question for Democrats and liberals shouldn't be: "Why isn't Obama's presidency more progressive?" Instead, it should be: "Why isn't the country more progressive?" During the '08 presidential campaign, Obama declared (controversially at the time): "Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." He was correct. And progressives -- as well as historians -- might better judge Obama 10 to 15 years from now, whether his administration was able to bend the trajectory of American politics like Reagan did after '88.

They're onto something here, but the truth is a little more complicated than this. First, ideological self-identification is a very poor tool for describing voter beliefs. Elites understand the bucket of issue positions that fall into categories like "liberal" and "conservative," but research shows that most people don't. And the relative numbers of self-identified liberals and conservatives often bounces up and down in ways that don't seem to reflect actual changes in the public opinion landscape.

Second, liberals do have strong and deep advantages on many enduring public policies issues -- Social Security and Medicare, the minimum wage, regulation of business, progressive taxation, and others. (Conservatives tend to fare better on social issues and foreign policy.) So public opinion can't be the sole or even primary explanation for the lack of liberal success, especially on issues where liberals have a strong advantage.

But: conservatives do enjoy an advantage in abstract ideology. Americans may favor most of the things that government does, but they don't have a clear understanding of most of what government spends money on, and (as a result) they oppose government spending and regulation in the abstract. As they saw, Americans are ideological conservatives but operational conservatives. Conservatives naturally try to conduct debates over government in the most abstract terms, while Democrats try to refocus the debate on the specifics. But since most people pay only glancing attention at best to policy debates, the side that debates in the abstract has a natural advantage.

Most importantly, conservatives are able to express their ideology in sweeping abstract terms. Ronald Reagan can make a broad case against government. Barack Obama can't make a correspondingly sweeping case for government -- both because he isn't reflexively pro-government in the way conservatives are reflexively anti-government, and because making his case for government in abstract terms shifts the debate to the least friendly terrain. Obama won't win a debate about government. He can win a debate about whether derivatives should be regulated, whether people with preexisting conditions should be able to acquire health insurance, or whether taxes on people making more than a quarter million dollars are too low.

The flipside is that the Democrats' inability to debate in abstract philosophical terms freezes the status quo. You can win an appeal to the public on this program or that regulation, but the general view that government is bad remains in place.

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