The Magazine

The Two Americas

Obama's is smaller.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Was 2009 the dawn of a new liberal era? Or was it, rather, the apogee of Democratic power (for now)? In November 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, liberals weren't content to say his sweeping victory was due to public disapproval of President Bush and the deepening recession. They insisted the electorate had been transformed. The country had changed, in a fundamental way.

Gone were the angry white folks who had let the GOP run things, off and on, for a generation. A rainbow coalition of progressive, technologically savvy Millennial voters had arrived on the scene. America, we were told, was salivating at the prospect of a "new era of liberal reform." Obama was Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy all rolled into one. He was, moreover, the liberal Reagan. His ascendance signaled not only the end of conservative power but a decisive lurch to the left.

The events of the last year have exposed this argument as false. The United States remains a closely divided nation that trends center-right. Self-identified conservatives outnumber liberals two-to-one. In December, 76 percent of respondents told Rasmussen Reports that they prefer a free-market economy to one managed by government. While Obama remains personally popular, his job approval has steadily declined to less than 50 percent in the Pew, USA Today/Gallup, and Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls.

And though the national Republican party remains unpopular, the GOP has nevertheless pulled within striking distance of the Democrats in the generic congressional ballot. In 2009, pro-life conservative Republicans won gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey--two Obama states. An energetic right-wing protest movement has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to give voice to Americans upset at the political class.

Obama's domestic program is exceedingly unpopular. The public disapproves of the president's bailouts, stimulus, health care reform, and cap and trade policies, not to mention his decision to close the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay. Such disapproval, however, has led to a paradox. Because Democrats know they likely will suffer an electoral rebuke in 2010, they have moved even more quickly to enact their unwelcome agenda.

In their view, after all, 2009 could be the high-water mark of the New New Deal; better seize the moment. Democrats in Congress, therefore, have passed major pieces of complex legislation, with significant effects on the American economy, against public opinion and on party-line votes. They might as well be lemmings, marching to the cliff.

The backlash against Obama's partisan liberal agenda has led to some surprising numbers. The December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found the Tea Party movement has a higher approval rating than either the Democrats or the GOP. A recent Fox News poll found a majority of respondents preferred "doing nothing" to signing the Democratic health care bills into law. In another December survey, Public Policy Polling found that--this is not a joke--voters prefer Obama to George W. Bush by only a six-point margin.

Liberals have dismissed these polls, of course. Obama's sagging popularity, they say, has nothing to do with his liberalism. Unemployment is the sole factor. Granted, high unemployment is a factor. But it is not the only one. It cannot be a coincidence, for example, that Obama's job approval began to really slide at the very moment Congress took up the health care debate.

Meanwhile, liberals ascribe the unpopularity of their policies solely to right-wing "smears" and "lies." The idea that the opposition might be arguing in good faith, that it might hold legitimate criticisms, cannot be countenanced. Some ulterior motive--greed, nuttery, racism, etc.--is always at work. These are excuses, however. Saying there is something wrong with your opponent's character is a convenient way to escape from dealing with his reasoning. It is also a good way to escape from reality.

The truth is that the liberal great awakening was always a fantasy. "What's really exceptional at this stage of Obama's presidency," writes Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, "is the extent to which the public has moved in a conservative direction on a range of issues." That movement, Kohut observes, is coming not only from "wingers" but from independents and the center, as well. "Pew Research surveys throughout the year have found a downward slope in support both for an activist government generally and for a strong safety net for the needy, in particular."