Obama Backlash in Context
If the polling is anywhere close to accurate, a Republican wave will come crashing down today, repudiating the first two years of the Obama administration. What does it mean?
Kevin Drum argues that, to the extent today’s elections is “a repudiation of the massive overreach” of Barack Obama and the Democrats, it’s historically unusual.
The Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Sixties all produced the bulk of their reforms over the space of about half a dozen years, after which an exhausted public largely called a stop. The Progressive Era ended with World War I and the 19th Amendment and was followed by the business-centric “normalcy” of the Harding-Coolidge years. The New Deal came to a close with the start of World War II, and it was followed first by Harry Truman’s inability to move the chains much on further domestic reform and then the Cold War conservatism of the Eisenhower era. Likewise, the famously massive changes of the Sixties were followed by the equally famous backlash of the 70s and the election of Ronald Reagan.
So repudiation of liberal reform is entirely normal. The big question is: why did Obama only get two years? Especially considering that his reforms, compared to previous eras of liberal activism, were so modest?
Let’s take a few guesses. (1) Obama’s goals themselves were comparatively modest, and that set expectations. Burnout among the electorate may be as much relative to expectations as it is a reaction to absolute measures of change. (2) The internet and the 24/7 media environment have speeded things up. What goes up must come down, but attention spans are so short these days that things come down a lot faster than they used to. (3) On a related note, the congressional environment is more poisonous than in the past, and voters may be reacting to that as much as they’re reacting to Obama’s actual legislative agenda. (4) The economy sucks. People get frustrated with change a lot faster in bad times than in good.
Kevin’s identifying the right factors, but I would rank them 4, 2, 3, 1.
The horrid state of the economy certainly accounts all by itself for at least half of the backlash. And Obama’s policy responses to it, notably the bailouts, accounts for another chunk. (Yes, his Republican predecessor had two bailouts of his own, the second of which was pretty controversial. But Bush was already toast by that point, so it didn’t much matter.)
Against that backdrop, the Outrage Machine went to work well before Obama took the Oath of Office and continues to this day. We’ve been going in that direction for something like two decades now with talk radio, “Crossfire” and its cable clones, and the blogs. But those New Media forms have become the dominant content type over the last few years, with mainstream newspapers, magazines, and broadcast channels becoming virtually indistinguishable from the blogs and vice-versa. It’s a 24/7/365 cacophony now.
And, yes, while I opposed ObamaCare and many of the other social reforms on this administration’s agenda — and agree with Vice President Biden that they were a really big deal — they’re tweaks in the system compared to the reforms of the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society. Mostly because those reforms already existed, meaning the debate wasn’t (legitimately, anyway) over “socialism” versus “free market” but rather between ratcheting up to 39 percent socialism or maintaining the status quo of 34 percent socialism.
I’m not sure about this conclusion:
But there’s also one other thing: the backlash against Obama probably isn’t all that strong to begin with. As I mentioned on Friday, basic structural factors suggest a Democratic loss of 45 seats in the House this year. If Democrats instead lose 55, that’s evidence of a backlash, but not actually a very big one. It means that we’re still fundamentally the 50-50 nation we all talked about so much after the 2000 election, and a small shift among a small number of voters makes a big difference. It’s true that voters are frustrated and tired, but I think it’s a mistake to allow TV shoutfests to exaggerate just how frustrated and tired they really are.
I agree that Obama is fundamentally popular and that the net result of a 50-something seat shift in the House would return us to the recent norm of 50-50ish party division. But that’s still a pretty big backlash. It was one that, as recently as seven or eight months ago, I would have said next to impossible.
Still, it’s a rejection of the “wrong track” the country feels we’re on, rather than a realignment such as the elections of FDR and Reagan signaled. I still believe that, absent unemployment remaining at these extraordinarily high levels, Obama is the odds-on favorite for victory in 2012. Partly, that’s because re-electing presidents has always been our default position. Partly, it’s because I’m skeptical of the electability of the likely Republican nominees. Mostly, it’s because, unlike FDR in 1932 and Reagan in 1980, the opposition party has yet to articulate a positive change agenda.