Obama for smarties

by Ken Feltman

For all its terrible faults, in one sense America is still the last, best hope of mankind, because it spells out so vividly the kind of happiness that most people actually want, regardless of what they are told they ought to want.
- Ferdinand Mount

Over the last few months, I have received questions about why President Obama’s popularity is slipping and why healthcare reform is in trouble. Many are concerned that Obama’s troubles have to do with racial prejudice. Fortunately, little valid evidence for that has been shown. The vast majority of Americans – both those who supported Obama and those who did not – like the president and his family and want him to succeed. They are proud that he is president.

Blacks and whites agree that every day in the U.S., African-Americans are subjected to indignities and slights that whites rarely encounter. Blacks and other minorities agree that whites are more aware of racial insensitivity than in the past. All agree that we have a long way to go. Polls show that a majority of blacks and whites believe that race is not the reason for the drop in Obama’s popularity.

What’s gone wrong? To help readers understand, one Russian suggested that I write an article titled “Obama for Dummies.” How about “Obama for Smarties”?

Different definitions of ‘change’ may be a problem

What did Obama mean when he called for change? What did Americans think he meant? Americans are now concluding that perhaps they had more modest, slower change in mind than the president is providing. Here are three conclusions from research:

Americans voted for change, but not the change that Obama is presenting.

Obama campaigned from the middle and adopted several right-of-center positions, but many Americans – especially those who call themselves independents – are concerned that Obama seems to be governing from the left.

Obama appears to have bitten off more than he can chew.

Obama championed change. Americans and the world were tired of President Bush and welcomed Obama’s call for change. But those outside the U.S. may have assumed that Americans wanted the future to be different from the past. Instead, Americans really wanted to return to the recent past – the pre-9-11 past.

Democratic voters signaled that they did not want a major ideological shift. They chose Obama, not one of the candidates identified with big-government programs – Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich. Obama got Senator Kennedy’s endorsement, but like Bill Clinton, he won the election because he distanced himself from Kennedy-style liberalism. His promise of change was eloquent and mobilized the left wing of his party while persuading moderate Democrats. Next, Obama reassured undecided voters and independents that radical change was not part of his plan. Obama’s views were acceptable to people in the middle and to many moderate Republicans.

Much of the campaigning was directed toward the committed voters who make up each party’s base. It made little difference. The base of each party turned out in about the same numbers as in 2004 and Obama won among liberal voters by about the same margin as John Kerry did in 2004.

The election was decided by moderate, independent voters. Kerry had a nine-point edge over President Bush in 2004 among moderates. Obama carried moderates by 21 points in 2008.

Obama’s success among moderates related to his positions on key issues. Obama supported offshore oil drilling, merit pay for teachers, a tax cut for 95 percent of Americans, more troops in Afghanistan and an end to earmarks.
“Put simply,” said a key Republican official after the election, “Barack Obama just ran the most successful moderate Republican presidential campaign since Dwight Eisenhower.”

Not the right time for FDR-type solutions

Between the election and inauguration, Obama was often compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt. As much as Obama seemed to embrace the comparison, the times were different and the comparison became something of a trap. By the time FDR took office after the 1932 election, the economy had been tanking for more than three years, creating mass hardship and desperation. The current recession is causing great hardship, but so far it resembles the hardship of the 1952 economic downturn, not the Great Depression of 1932.

The 1952 economic downturn favored the candidate of the party out of power, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, just as the Depression election in 1932 swept FDR to power after years of Republicans in the White House. Voters expected Roosevelt to make big changes and he did. When Americans elected Eisenhower in 1952, they were not voting for extreme change. They wanted moderate improvements, a little tinkering, incremental change. They got it.

Obama saw his task as grander than it was: He mistook 2008 for 1932 while the voters seemed to think that 2008 was more like 1952.

The voters last year wanted less from Obama than the voters in 1932 wanted from FDR, but Obama gave us FDR-like solutions because he believed that he had a mandate for the expansion of federal power (“Never waste a good crisis.” ). He made the federal government responsible for everything from restructuring automakers to injecting stimulus billions into the banking and financial system to reforming healthcare. He quickly exhausted many voters with his big programs, big numbers and constant TV exposure. He scared some. He worried many. He satisfied few. He gave moderates reasons to reconsider their support.

Americans do not trust big government

He forgot that Americans resist big government because they do not trust their own federal government to handle the power that goes with bigness. Liberals distrust the government for some reasons, conservatives distrust the government for other reasons. But both liberals and conservatives share a distrust of the government. The voters in the middle are wary of both big-government liberal programs and big-government conservative programs. Mistrust of our own government is part of our heritage. It is in our genes. It may be the most consistent trait in U.S. political history. .

Presidents invariably invite criticism when they try to implement big plans. Bush alarmed the left after 9-11 by pushing through the Patriot Act, engaging in warrantless eavesdropping, snooping through library records and a host of other things that the left could not stomach. Obama scared and mobilized the right by spending hundreds of billions of dollars and proposing that the government exert more control over basic industries and healthcare. Just as Bush had lost the middle, Obama began to lose the middle.

Moderates may not stick with the person or party that they supported in the last election. They are called independents because they are. They tend to line up against the expansion of federal power. Thus, the moderates swing the country. This pattern repeats throughout U.S. history, but politicians get caught up in the issues of the day and forget the general rule:

Moderates almost always oppose what they perceive as bigger government.
Stated another way, the American people are quite consistent in opposition to bigger government because moderates almost always oppose expansion of government.

Obama and his advisors misread history and ignored the public mood, especially as expressed by moderates. Last December, for example, several polls showed that over half of Americans believed that the government was already “too big” or was “doing too much” and interfering with things that “should be left to individuals and business.” Before 9-11, the percentage of Americans who thought the government was doing too much varied, poll by poll, from about 30 percent to just under 40 percent.

Most of the swing against Bush was due to defecting moderates. Bush never seemed to understand that and thought his troubles came from the noisy left. Obama seems to be operating on the belief that his problems come from a noisy right. In fact, the problem is with those voters in the middle

Since December, the worst recession in decades has not changed their minds. Today, more than half say the president’s policies go too far in expanding the federal government.

In the context of Americans’ aversion to bigger government, the president’s declining poll numbers and his inability to get his way with healthcare reform are not that hard to understand. The continuing failure of president after president to figure out what motivates independent voters is harder to understand. How can we explain this tone deafness to the sizeable middle of American politics?

Independent voters are always tugging presidential administrations back to the middle. But presidents resist the tugging and lose the support of the swing voters in the middle.

Obama thought that his new job was bigger and harder than those voters thought it was.

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About Ken Feltman

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Feltman founded the U.S. and European Conflict Indexes in 1988. The indexes have predicted the winner of every U.S. presidential election beginning in 1988, plus the outcome of several European elections. In May of 2010, the Conflict Index was used by university students in Egypt. The Index predicted the fall of the Mubarak government within the next year.
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