Two tides swept over American politics last winter. The first was the Obama tide. President Barack Obama came into office with an impressive 70 percent approval rating. The second was the independent tide. Over the first months of this year, the number of people who called themselves either Democrats or Republicans declined, while the number who called themselves independents surged ahead.
Obama’s challenge was to push his agenda through a Democratic-controlled government while retaining the affection of the 39 percent of Americans in the middle.
The administration hasn’t been able to do it. From the stimulus to health care, it has joined itself to the liberal leadership in Congress. The White House has failed to veto measures, like the wasteful omnibus spending bill that would have demonstrated independence and fiscal restraint. By force of circumstances and by design, the president has promoted one policy after another that increases spending and centralizes power in Washington.
The result is the Obama slide, the most important feature of the current moment. The number of Americans who trust Obama to make the right decisions has fallen by roughly 17 percentage points. Obama’s job approval is down to about 50 percent. All presidents fall from their honeymoon highs, but in the history of polling, no newly elected American president has fallen this far this fast.
Anxiety is now pervasive. Trust in government rose when Obama took office. It has fallen back to historic lows. Fifty-nine percent of Americans now think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
The public’s view of Congress, which ticked upward for a time, has plummeted. Charlie Cook, who knows as much about congressional elections as anyone in the country, wrote recently that Democratic fortunes have “slipped completely out of control.” He and the experts he surveyed believe there is just as much chance that the Democrats could lose more than 20 House seats in the next elections as less than 20.
There are also warning signs in the Senate. A recent poll shows Harry Reid, the majority leader, trailing the Republican Danny Tarkanian, a possible 2010 opponent, by 49 percent to 38 percent. When your majority leader is down to a 38 percent base in his home state, that’s not good.
The public has soured on Obama’s policy proposals. Voters often have only an indistinct sense of what each individual proposal actually does, but more and more have a growing conviction that if the president is proposing it, it must involve big spending, big government and a fundamental departure from the traditional American approach.
Driven by this general anxiety, and by specific concerns, public opposition to health care reform is now steady and stable. Independents once solidly supported reform. Now they have swung against it. As the veteran pollster Bill McInturff has pointed out, public attitudes toward Obamacare exactly match public attitudes toward Clintoncare when that reform effort collapsed in 1994.
Amazingly, some liberals are now lashing out at Obama because the entire country doesn’t agree with The Huffington Post. Some now argue that the administration should just ignore the ignorant masses and ram health care through using reconciliation, the legislative manoeuvre that would reduce the need for moderate votes.
This would be suicidal. You can’t pass the most important domestic reform in a generation when the majority of voters think you are on the wrong path. To do so would be a sign of unmitigated arrogance. If Obama agrees to use reconciliation, he will permanently affix himself to the liberal wing of his party and permanently alienate independents. He will be president of 35 percent of the country — and good luck getting anything done after that.
The second liberal response has been to attack the budget director, Peter Orszag. It was a mistake to put cost control at the centre of the health reform sales job, many now argue. The president shouldn’t worry about the deficit. Just pass the spending parts.
But fiscal restraint is now the animating issue for moderate Americans. To take the looming $9 trillion in debt and balloon it further would be to enrage a giant part of the electorate.
This is a country that has always been suspicious of centralized government. This is a country that has just lived through an economic trauma caused by excessive spending and debt. Most Americans still admire Obama and want him to succeed. But if he doesn’t proceed in a manner consistent with the spirit of the nation and the times, voters will find a way to stop him.
The president’s challenge now is to halt the slide. That doesn’t mean giving up his goals. It means he has to align his proposals to the values of the political centre: fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority.