An Ideologue Instead of a Statesman

Published November 12, 2009


The results of races for the governorship of Virginia and New Jersey were ominous for Democrats. The most alarming development for them should be that independents voted for the GOP candidates by roughly a 2-to-1 margin. This was a sea change, and it took place in only a year.

There are several reasons Democrats are faltering at this juncture. But one explanation, I think, is more relevant than all others: President Obama is pushing a hugely expensive and ambitious domestic agenda the public simply does not want. Many Americans also believe that what Obama is doing is a diversion from the pressing issues confronting the country — a weak economy, the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment in more than a quarter century (the figure now stands at 17.5 percent), and an exploding deficit and debt.

Virtually every public-opinion poll shows considerable resistance to ObamaCare, the signature domestic program of the Obama presidency. Cap-and-trade is about as unpopular. In addition, public sentiment is turning hard against government spending, control, and activism, which are at the core of Obamaism.

Trust in government is down to 23 percent — the lowest in at least a dozen years. More than three quarters of the public believe that the federal government does the right thing either never or only some of the time. Large majorities believe the president and Congress should worry about the budget deficit above almost anything else. The percentage of Americans who believe that there is too much government regulation has risen sharply in a year (from 38 percent in 2008 to 45 percent this year); so has the number of people who say government is doing too many things better left to business (the number has increased from 40 percent to 48 percent). Not surprisingly, the overall approval of the job that Congress is doing is now at 24 percent. And Obama himself has seen a historic drop in his support during his first year in office.

There is more. According to the latest Gallup poll, Republicans have moved ahead of Democrats by 48 percent to 44 percent among registered voters in the generic congressional ballot for the 2010 House elections, with independents' preference for the Republican candidate in their districts having grown to an astonishing 22-point lead over a Democratic candidate (52 percent to 30 percent).

And a new Pew poll finds that voters who plan to support Republicans next year are more enthusiastic than those who plan to vote for a Democrat. Fully 58 percent of those who plan to vote for a Republican next year say they are very enthusiastic about voting, compared with only 42 percent of those who plan to vote for a Democrat. And 56 percent of independent voters who support a Republican in their district are very enthusiastic about voting, as opposed to just 32 percent of independents who plan to vote for a Democrat expressing high levels of enthusiasm. Anti-incumbent sentiments are near all-time highs. More broadly, according to Pew,

The mood of America is glum. Two-thirds of the public is dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. Fully nine-in-ten say that national economic conditions are only fair or poor, and nearly two-thirds describe their own finances that way — the most since the summer of 1992.

Democrats have convinced themselves that passing a historic health-care bill — which is still far from certain — will change all that. Their supposition is that while the legislative process may be unseemly, the final product will be popular. The mere act of passing health-care reform will be a huge political victory for the president and Democrats — and will redound to their benefit. Or so goes the theory. But it is, I think, a misguided one.

Jamming through an unpopular program of this size and scope without bipartisan support is a prescription for a public backlash. Moreover, the basic design of the program Democrats are advocating is deeply flawed — and bad policies make for bad politics. Yet even with public skepticism giving way to public opposition, with widespread concern transmuting into widespread anxiety and unhappiness, Obama continues to push ahead with his agenda. Why?

Because Mr. Obama came in to office determined to reshape American society in deep and lasting ways — and health care is the best vehicle through which that reshaping will occur. It doesn't matter that this is something the public does not want; in his mind, and in the minds of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, it is something the public needs. Call it progressive paternalism.

The president and his team made a huge wager at the outset of Obama's tenure. They would use the economic crisis they faced to push through a sweeping agenda (“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” is how chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put it.) Instead of focusing on the major problems confronting the nation, they would leverage those problems to achieve other aims. And this will be seen in retrospect as a huge, perhaps historic, mistake on their part.

“The truth is, gentlemen, a statesman is the creature of his age, the child of circumstances, the creation of his times,” Disraeli said.

A statesman is essentially a practical character; and when he is called upon to take office, he is not to inquire what his opinion might or might not have been on this or that subject; he is only to ascertain the needful and the beneficial, and the most feasible measure to be carried out.

What we are finding is that Barack Obama is not a practical character; he is a dogmatist. He has avoided what's needed and beneficial in order to promote a sweeping statist agenda. He is turning out to be an ideologue instead of a statesman.

The enormous goodwill the president had at the beginning of the year has evaporated. The public still rather likes him — but they don't much like what he is doing to them and to their country. There will be a high price for him to pay for carrying through on his liberal ambitions. But it is his party — the instrument of his ambitions — that will suffer the consequences first.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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