Published April 28, 2010
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center is filled with bleak news for Democrats and the cause of liberalism. “By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days,” according to an overview of the Pew survey. It finds “a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government — a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.”
Let's examine some of the data and Pew's analysis of several institutions:
The Federal Government: The Pew survey shows that just 22 percent of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time. This is one of the lowest measures in half a century. Seventy-seven percent say they are either frustrated or angry with the federal government, while only 19 percent say they are basically content. Fully 74 percent think that the government does only a fair or poor job of running its programs. And the percentage saying government has the wrong priorities has increased sharply since 1997 — from 29 percent to 38 percent.
In 1997 (a year when another major Pew survey was taken and which therefore serves as a useful reference point), 50 percent of those responding to the survey believed that the federal government had a “positive” effect on their daily lives; today, only 38 percent see the federal government's personal impact as positive. More than half of the public (52 percent) say it is a major problem that the government is too big and powerful, while 58 percent say that the federal government is interfering too much in state and local matters. And the percentage of the public that views the federal government as a major threat to their personal freedom has increased from 18 percent in 2003 (according to an ABC News/Washington Post survey) to 30 percent today.
A desire for smaller government is particularly evident since Barack Obama took office, according to the Pew survey. In four surveys over the past year, about half of those polled have consistently said they would rather have a smaller government with fewer services, while about 40 percent have consistently preferred a bigger government providing more services. In October 2008, shortly before the presidential election, the public was evenly divided on this issue.
In addition, most Americans (58 percent) say that “the government has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the free enterprise system.” The public also opposes government exerting more control over the economy than it has in recent years. Just 40 percent say this is a good idea, while 51 percent say it is not.
Congress: Just 25 percent of the public expressed a favorable opinion of this branch of government, the lowest favorable rating for Congress in a quarter century of Pew Research Center surveys. Over the last year, favorable opinions of Congress have declined by half — from 50 percent to 25 percent. A useful reference point, one that comes courtesy of the political analyst Charlie Cook, is that in July 1994, a little more than three months before Democrats lost both the House and Senate, Congress had an overall job-approval rating of 53 percent; and in October 2006, the month before Republicans lost both chambers, 41 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Congress — 16 points higher than the situation today.
Just 40 percent of Democrats have a favorable impression of the Democratic-controlled Congress — the lowest positive rating for Congress ever among members of the majority party. And when asked about a series of criticisms of elected officials in Washington — that they care only about their careers, are influenced by special interests, are unwilling to compromise, and are profligate and out-of-touch — no fewer than 76 percent agree with each of the statements.
The Democratic Party: The Pew survey shows favorable ratings for the Democratic Party have fallen by 21 points — from 59 percent to 38 percent — over the past year and now stand at their lowest point in the history of Pew Research surveys. (This news is not altogether cheery for the Republican Party. The GOP's ratings, which increased from 40 percent last August to 46 percent in February, have fallen back to 37 percent.) Yet, according to the Pew survey, anti-government sentiment appears to be a more significant driver of possible turnout among Republicans and independents than among Democrats. Among Republican voters who are highly dissatisfied with government, 83 percent say they are absolutely certain to vote in the mid-term elections; that compares with 67 percent of Republicans who express low levels of frustration with government. By contrast, there is no difference in intention to vote among Democrats who are highly frustrated with government (63 percent) and those who are less frustrated (64 percent).
Perhaps more troubling for Democrats, the link between dissatisfaction with government and voting intentions is at least as strong among independent voters. Independents who are highly dissatisfied with government are far more committed to voting this year than are independents who are less frustrated (78 percent vs. 58 percent). Overall, independent voters slightly favor the GOP candidate in their district by a 41-percent-to 34-percent margin, but those who are highly dissatisfied with government favor the Republican candidate by an overwhelming 66-percent-to-13-percent margin.
And according to a new poll by Gallup, the GOP leads in the generic congressional ballot by one point, 46 percent to 45 percent — but among those who are “very enthusiastic” about voting in November, the Republican lead over Democrats is a staggering 20-point margin (57 v. 37).
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Here are a few interpretative thoughts on this data.
For one thing, it's hard to think of another person who, at this juncture in his presidency, has undermined his own party and ideological cause as Barack Obama. The massive loss of faith in government, in Congress, and in the Democratic Party is vertigo-inducing. Barack Obama was sworn into office with deep and wide support across the country, and a tremendous amount of good will. Yet no president in the history of modern polling has fallen so far so fast as has Obama. None has been so polarizing in his first year in office. And now he is in charge of a government and a party that are not only unpopular but increasingly discredited.
The stage is set, then, for what looks to be a crushing defeat for Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections. The Democratic Party has become the embodiment of big government at precisely the moment when big government has never been less popular. The GOP is running ahead of the Democratic Party on most generic congressional vote polls. Republicans are trusted on almost all of the most important issues facing the nation. When President Obama and the Democratic Congress took over, self-identified Democrats far outnumbered Republicans (52 percent vs. 39 percent). Today, according to Gallup, the Democrats enjoy just a one-point lead in party identification.
In three significant elections during the Obama presidency — the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, and the Senate race in Massachusetts — independents voted for the Republican candidates by margins of two- and three-to-one. Democrats such as Rep. David Obey, who has won 21 consecutive House races, almost always by a comfortable margin, ar
e now facing stiff challenges. Democratic senators like Patty Murray in Washington State and Barbara Boxer in California — both usually reliable blue states — are facing very tough races.
“As we head toward November's mid-term elections,” according to Charlie Cook, “the outlook remains dire for Democrats.”
It's worth recalling that almost all Democrats and much of the punditry establishment argued that passing health care reform would arrest the slide Obama and the Democrats have been experiencing in the polls and even generate an uptick in support for both. Signing such sweeping legislation into law would prove to America that the Democrats were competent at governing. Health care reform would become more popular as people absorbed the details. It would mark the beginning of the Obama Comeback.
Instead, as some of us predicted, ObamaCare continued to get more and more unpopular after it became the law of the land. “President Barack Obama's approval rating hovers at an all-time low (44-46 percent on April 21). The White House had predicted passage of the health care overhaul would boost his fortunes, but that has not been the case, and that legislation itself remains decidedly unpopular,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. By 53 percent to 39 percent, voters disapprove of the federal health care overhaul that the president recently signed into law. It's now to the point where Democrats don't want any attention focused on what they consider to be world-historic legislation. They are trying to hide ObamaCare under a bushel. It won't work. The mid-term election will be, in good measure, a referendum on one of the most unpopular major pieces of legislation ever to become law — a law that feeds a larger, and very problematic, narrative for Democrats (profligate, undisciplined, and enchanted by big government). The tactics Democrats used to gain its passage has also done considerable damage to the reputation of Congress and to Obama himself.
It should be clear by now that the 2008 election did not mark an ideological shift in the country away from conservatism toward liberalism. The president and his advisers may have assumed that was the case — and they certainly have governed as if it were the case. This may well turn out to be a miscalculation of extraordinary dimensions.
What should be doubly alarming for Democrats is that the president seems in a state of self-delusion about all this. “I think the core decisions we've made have been the right ones,” Obama told John Harwood of the New York Times. “The economy is in a much better place than it would have been if we hadn't made some of those decisions. I think on the foreign policy front, our basic approach has restored America's standing in the world.” If the economy and our foreign policy are so much better, then what explains the meltdown we are witnessing?
“What I have not done as well as I would have liked to is to consistently communicate to the general public why we're making some of the decisions,” Obama added. “Because we've been so rushed over the course of the last year and a half, just issue after issue and crisis after crisis, we haven't been as effective.”
Ah, yes; the old “we're low in the polls because we have a communications problem” explanation. As a former White House aide, I can tell you it's a comforting one to grab hold of — and most of the time, including this time, it's not remotely accurate. We are not seeing the extraordinary civic uprising against Obama and his agenda because of a “communications problem.” What Obama has is a substance problem, a facts-on-the-ground problem. The sooner he re-engages with reality, the better it will be for everyone concerned.
Barack Obama is not only inflicting damage on his own party, he is in the process revivifying both the GOP and conservatism as well. If the GOP was contaminated during the last few years, Obama appears to be a one-man decontamination program.
If the election were held today, Republicans would almost surely retake the House. Even a takeover of the Senate is within reach (though still a long shot). The nation has become more conservative during the Age of Obama. And the issues that are now dominating our political culture are ones that traditionally fall right into the conservative wheelhouse: the size of government, spending, and taxes.
Some intelligent commentators, like David Brooks of the New York Times,are depressed by this development. “This is a disappointing time,” Brooks wrote last week. “The Democrats have become the government party and the Republicans are the small government party. The stale, old debate is back with a fury.”
I see things differently. We are engaging in a spirited and sometimes rancorous debate about first principles — the size and reach of the federal government, the proper relationship between citizens and the state, how much debt we can sustain, and the relationship between taxes and economic growth.
We are in the midst of deciding an immensely important matter: Do we want to follow Barack Obama as he attempts to lead America on the path toward becoming a European-style social democracy? To me this beats debating school uniforms, midnight basketball, and Bill Clinton's extracurricular sex life.
The debate may not be the same quality that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay engaged in — but it deals with some of the same core issues. And that, I think, is a good thing for America to wrestle with. I'm fairly encouraged by where the majority of the public will come down on these matters.
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.