Commentary Magazine


Topic: fewer services

Faith in Government Erodes

AEI’s “Political Report” is devoted to attitudes about the federal government. According to the December 2010 issue, five pollsters conducted significant surveys on the role of government this year. Among the conclusions:

[C]ontemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep. Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991. Nearly three in ten say the federal government does a poor job running its programs and another 46 percent says it does an “only fair” job. A majority say it needs “very major” reform. Only 3 percent say it doesn’t need much change at all. More than twice as many say its performance is getting worse than getting better. The top criticism of government is that it is wasteful and inefficient. [emphasis added]

About 45 percent think government is a threat to personal liberty. Only 3 percent of those polled said the government did not need major reform. The recession and the cumulative impact of TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus plan, and the health-care legislation on public psychology have been “substantial.” In one survey, 50 percent now say they would prefer a smaller government with fewer services, and 39 percent a larger government with more services. The number preferring smaller government has risen dramatically since President Obama took office. The belief that government is doing too many things that are better left to individuals and businesses has also risen.

There is one other conclusion worth noting:

The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.

These results track with what others show. According to a survey done earlier this year by the Pew Research Center, for example, “By almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days.”

There are a number of explanations for this, including our poor-performing economy (when economic times are bad, anger at government rises). In any event, the irony can’t be lost on anyone: the president with the greatest faith in big government since Lyndon Johnson is overseeing a collapse in support for it. More than any single individual, Barack Obama — the avatar of modern liberalism — is responsible for the ascendancy of conservatism in our time.

AEI’s “Political Report” is devoted to attitudes about the federal government. According to the December 2010 issue, five pollsters conducted significant surveys on the role of government this year. Among the conclusions:

[C]ontemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep. Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991. Nearly three in ten say the federal government does a poor job running its programs and another 46 percent says it does an “only fair” job. A majority say it needs “very major” reform. Only 3 percent say it doesn’t need much change at all. More than twice as many say its performance is getting worse than getting better. The top criticism of government is that it is wasteful and inefficient. [emphasis added]

About 45 percent think government is a threat to personal liberty. Only 3 percent of those polled said the government did not need major reform. The recession and the cumulative impact of TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus plan, and the health-care legislation on public psychology have been “substantial.” In one survey, 50 percent now say they would prefer a smaller government with fewer services, and 39 percent a larger government with more services. The number preferring smaller government has risen dramatically since President Obama took office. The belief that government is doing too many things that are better left to individuals and businesses has also risen.

There is one other conclusion worth noting:

The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.

These results track with what others show. According to a survey done earlier this year by the Pew Research Center, for example, “By almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days.”

There are a number of explanations for this, including our poor-performing economy (when economic times are bad, anger at government rises). In any event, the irony can’t be lost on anyone: the president with the greatest faith in big government since Lyndon Johnson is overseeing a collapse in support for it. More than any single individual, Barack Obama — the avatar of modern liberalism — is responsible for the ascendancy of conservatism in our time.

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The Obama Coalition Crack-Up

The Obama coalition is breaking up, the New York Times tells us:

Republicans have wiped out the advantage held by Democrats in recent election cycles among women, Catholics, less affluent Americans and independents; all of those groups broke for Mr. Obama in 2008 and for congressional Democrats when they grabbed both chambers from the Republicans four years ago, according to exit polls.

The poll found that a greater proportion of women would choose Republicans over Democrats in House races than at any time since exit polls began tracking the breakdown in 1982.

And for the Times poll, which a savvy Democratic pundit confided to me does indeed historically “tip Democratic,” the numbers are horrible for the Democrats. Obama’s approval is at 43 percent. And then there is the speaker: “The Democratic House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has clearly emerged as a political liability for her party in the latest Times/CBS poll. Overall, 43 percent of all respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Ms. Pelosi; 15 percent had a favorable opinion, and 40 percent said they had no opinion.” Yowser. No wonder she’s in so many GOP ads.

Other figures evidence the electorate’s rightward shift. Women, who have of late tilted Democratic, are now evenly split between support for Democrats and Republicans. By a margin of 55 to 36 percent, respondents favored smaller government with fewer services over bigger government with more services. Fifty-three percent think Obama does not have a clear plan for creating jobs. Respondents think Republicans are more likely than Democrats to create jobs and reduce the deficit (by a 43 to 32 percent margin).

And oh, by the way, the polling sample — 38 percent Democrat and 27 percent Republican — is more dramatically skewed toward the Democrats than just about any other poll (OK, there’s Newsweek, but not even James Carville takes that seriously).

Obama has managed to lose his own standing, take his party down with him, and convince core Democratic constituencies to vote Republican. And it took him only two years.

The Obama coalition is breaking up, the New York Times tells us:

Republicans have wiped out the advantage held by Democrats in recent election cycles among women, Catholics, less affluent Americans and independents; all of those groups broke for Mr. Obama in 2008 and for congressional Democrats when they grabbed both chambers from the Republicans four years ago, according to exit polls.

The poll found that a greater proportion of women would choose Republicans over Democrats in House races than at any time since exit polls began tracking the breakdown in 1982.

And for the Times poll, which a savvy Democratic pundit confided to me does indeed historically “tip Democratic,” the numbers are horrible for the Democrats. Obama’s approval is at 43 percent. And then there is the speaker: “The Democratic House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has clearly emerged as a political liability for her party in the latest Times/CBS poll. Overall, 43 percent of all respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Ms. Pelosi; 15 percent had a favorable opinion, and 40 percent said they had no opinion.” Yowser. No wonder she’s in so many GOP ads.

Other figures evidence the electorate’s rightward shift. Women, who have of late tilted Democratic, are now evenly split between support for Democrats and Republicans. By a margin of 55 to 36 percent, respondents favored smaller government with fewer services over bigger government with more services. Fifty-three percent think Obama does not have a clear plan for creating jobs. Respondents think Republicans are more likely than Democrats to create jobs and reduce the deficit (by a 43 to 32 percent margin).

And oh, by the way, the polling sample — 38 percent Democrat and 27 percent Republican — is more dramatically skewed toward the Democrats than just about any other poll (OK, there’s Newsweek, but not even James Carville takes that seriously).

Obama has managed to lose his own standing, take his party down with him, and convince core Democratic constituencies to vote Republican. And it took him only two years.

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Liberals on the Ropes

The New York Times poll (invariably more positive for the Democrats than other surveys) contains little good news for the Democrats. The Times has Obama’s approval at 45 percent, near his all-time low of 44 percent. His disapproval rating of 47 percent is a record in this poll. A mere 33 percent think the country is going in the right direction. Only 41 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy. The generic congressional poll shows the Republicans ahead by two, with only 34 percent saying their own representative deserves re-election. By a margin of 48 to 41 percent, respondents favor a smaller government with fewer services over a bigger government with more services.

The Gray Lady is preparing its readers for the day of reckoning, edging its polling closer to more credible competing polls just in time for Election Day. (Looks bad when you miss the final results by a mile.) The Obami, their spin squad, and members of Congress should be making preparations as well. I advise against adopting the tactic of the left blogosphere — screeching that Americans are irrational bigots. It tends to annoy voters when you call them un-American or stooges of the insurance industry or uninformed or … oh wait. Yes, that probably has made them madder than they already were.

The president and the Senate and House Democratic survivors will have a choice to make: continue down the path that led to the defeat of so many colleagues and an anemic recovery or shift gears. It is a measure of the White House’s hubris and cluelessness that I’m really not certain which way they’ll go.

The New York Times poll (invariably more positive for the Democrats than other surveys) contains little good news for the Democrats. The Times has Obama’s approval at 45 percent, near his all-time low of 44 percent. His disapproval rating of 47 percent is a record in this poll. A mere 33 percent think the country is going in the right direction. Only 41 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy. The generic congressional poll shows the Republicans ahead by two, with only 34 percent saying their own representative deserves re-election. By a margin of 48 to 41 percent, respondents favor a smaller government with fewer services over a bigger government with more services.

The Gray Lady is preparing its readers for the day of reckoning, edging its polling closer to more credible competing polls just in time for Election Day. (Looks bad when you miss the final results by a mile.) The Obami, their spin squad, and members of Congress should be making preparations as well. I advise against adopting the tactic of the left blogosphere — screeching that Americans are irrational bigots. It tends to annoy voters when you call them un-American or stooges of the insurance industry or uninformed or … oh wait. Yes, that probably has made them madder than they already were.

The president and the Senate and House Democratic survivors will have a choice to make: continue down the path that led to the defeat of so many colleagues and an anemic recovery or shift gears. It is a measure of the White House’s hubris and cluelessness that I’m really not certain which way they’ll go.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Not working. Greg Sargent warns: “What if voters are simply not buying the central Dem message that a vote for the GOP is a vote to return to the Bush policies that ran the economy into the ground? What if the GOP has already achieved separation from the former president? The internals of the two national polls out this morning strongly suggest that this may be the case.”

Not-Obama is very popular. “Sixty-eight percent (68%) of U.S. voters prefer a smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes to a more active one that offers more services and higher taxes.”

Not even this would help: “Here’s the only way the Democratic Party can turn it around before Election Day: Spend the remaining $200 billion of the failed $800 billion ‘stimulus’ package to hire Superman to reverse the rotation of the Earth, so the Democrats can go back about two years and start anew with the historic mandate the electorate handed them in 2008.” After all, Obama says we’re turning the economy around, and Tim Kaine says it’s swell to run on the Obama agenda.

Not my fault, says Harry Reid. “It would take a real stretch to think I caused the problems with the economy.”

Not to be overlooked: “Republicans are within reach of gaining control of eight or more chambers in statehouses around the country this fall, according to interviews with Republicans, Democrats and independent political analysts. That would give Republicans the power to draw more Congressional districts in their favor, since the expected gains come just as many legislatures will play a major role in the once-a-decade process of redrawing the boundaries of those districts.”

Not sure why anyone would watch them.

Not surprising!? “It’s not surprising that Democrats would lose independent voters, or that Republicans would be wildly enthusiastic, when they control the government and push aggressive reforms during an economic calamity.”

Not working. Greg Sargent warns: “What if voters are simply not buying the central Dem message that a vote for the GOP is a vote to return to the Bush policies that ran the economy into the ground? What if the GOP has already achieved separation from the former president? The internals of the two national polls out this morning strongly suggest that this may be the case.”

Not-Obama is very popular. “Sixty-eight percent (68%) of U.S. voters prefer a smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes to a more active one that offers more services and higher taxes.”

Not even this would help: “Here’s the only way the Democratic Party can turn it around before Election Day: Spend the remaining $200 billion of the failed $800 billion ‘stimulus’ package to hire Superman to reverse the rotation of the Earth, so the Democrats can go back about two years and start anew with the historic mandate the electorate handed them in 2008.” After all, Obama says we’re turning the economy around, and Tim Kaine says it’s swell to run on the Obama agenda.

Not my fault, says Harry Reid. “It would take a real stretch to think I caused the problems with the economy.”

Not to be overlooked: “Republicans are within reach of gaining control of eight or more chambers in statehouses around the country this fall, according to interviews with Republicans, Democrats and independent political analysts. That would give Republicans the power to draw more Congressional districts in their favor, since the expected gains come just as many legislatures will play a major role in the once-a-decade process of redrawing the boundaries of those districts.”

Not sure why anyone would watch them.

Not surprising!? “It’s not surprising that Democrats would lose independent voters, or that Republicans would be wildly enthusiastic, when they control the government and push aggressive reforms during an economic calamity.”

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The Backlash Against Obamism

Andrew Kohut, the president of Pew Research, confirms the trend that’s been developing since the 2008 election:

A desire for smaller government is particularly evident since Barack Obama took office. In four surveys over the past year, about half have consistently said they would rather have a smaller government with fewer services, while about 40% have consistently preferred a bigger government providing more services. In October 2008, shortly before the presidential election, the public was evenly split on this question.

The public is now divided over whether it is a good idea for the government to exert more control over the economy than it has in recent years. Just 40% say this is a good idea, while a 51% majority says it is not. Last March, by 54% to 37%, more people said it was a good idea for the government to exert more control over the economy. The exception here is the undiminished support for the government to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business. This is favored by a 61% to 31% margin.

And while anti-government sentiment in general is up, Democrats are the target of most of the public’s anger and “a more significant driver of possible turnout among Republicans and independents than among Democrats.” Independents, Kohut notes, “favor the Republican candidates in their districts by an overwhelming 66% to 13% margin.”

Kohut doesn’t delve into the motivation for this swing. One can, like the Democrats, chalk this up to random anger and misplaced anxiety. But that assumes that the electorate has not been paying attention or has been bamboozled by, well, by whom isn’t certain. Or one can give the voters some credit and see the connection between voter sentiment and what it is that the Democrats have done while in office. It seems logical that the enormous uptick in debt and spending, the massive health-care bill, the bailouts, and the car-company takeovers have sparked a significant voter backlash.

We will see in November whether voters are irrationally angry with everyone in office or whether their ire is directed at those who sought a huge expansion of the scope and power of the federal government. If it’s the latter case, I’m sure the Democrats will come up with some excuse. But by then it’ll be hard to miss the message: a vast overreach by the Democrats has sparked a revival of the public’s distaste for liberal statism.

Andrew Kohut, the president of Pew Research, confirms the trend that’s been developing since the 2008 election:

A desire for smaller government is particularly evident since Barack Obama took office. In four surveys over the past year, about half have consistently said they would rather have a smaller government with fewer services, while about 40% have consistently preferred a bigger government providing more services. In October 2008, shortly before the presidential election, the public was evenly split on this question.

The public is now divided over whether it is a good idea for the government to exert more control over the economy than it has in recent years. Just 40% say this is a good idea, while a 51% majority says it is not. Last March, by 54% to 37%, more people said it was a good idea for the government to exert more control over the economy. The exception here is the undiminished support for the government to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business. This is favored by a 61% to 31% margin.

And while anti-government sentiment in general is up, Democrats are the target of most of the public’s anger and “a more significant driver of possible turnout among Republicans and independents than among Democrats.” Independents, Kohut notes, “favor the Republican candidates in their districts by an overwhelming 66% to 13% margin.”

Kohut doesn’t delve into the motivation for this swing. One can, like the Democrats, chalk this up to random anger and misplaced anxiety. But that assumes that the electorate has not been paying attention or has been bamboozled by, well, by whom isn’t certain. Or one can give the voters some credit and see the connection between voter sentiment and what it is that the Democrats have done while in office. It seems logical that the enormous uptick in debt and spending, the massive health-care bill, the bailouts, and the car-company takeovers have sparked a significant voter backlash.

We will see in November whether voters are irrationally angry with everyone in office or whether their ire is directed at those who sought a huge expansion of the scope and power of the federal government. If it’s the latter case, I’m sure the Democrats will come up with some excuse. But by then it’ll be hard to miss the message: a vast overreach by the Democrats has sparked a revival of the public’s distaste for liberal statism.

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Both the Left and the Right Have Pegged Obama Correctly

David Brooks thinks Obama has gotten a bum rap:

Liberals are wrong to call him weak and indecisive. He’s just not always pursuing their aims. Conservatives are wrong to call him a big-government liberal. That’s just not a fair reading of his agenda.

According to Brooks, Obama is simply “a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism.” It’s those wacky partisans on both sides who don’t get the essence of the man — the moderate but not too leftiness of Obama. Brooks reaches this conclusion, in part, by ignoring the totality of the programs, spending, and ambition of Obama’ s agenda. (Leaving out cap-and-trade, the plan for a mammoth tax hike, the takeover of two car companies, the mound of spending, and the foreign-policy apology fetish makes Obama sound a whole lot less radical than he is.) And frankly, as Obama presides over the strangulation of the D.C. school-voucher program, it’s preposterous to argue that “Obama has been the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency.”

Brooks also ignores that it’s not only conservative partisans who have recoiled against Obama’s excesses. Obama has lost the middle of the country, as independents’ support has plummeted. These voters are freaked out by the spending and the fixation on a mammoth health-care plan. A great deal of the country has come to see Obama and the Democratic party as “too liberal.” And poll after poll shows a newfound appreciation for “fewer services, lower taxes” over “more services, higher taxes.” If Obama is horribly misunderstood, then a large segment of the country — not simply die-hard conservatives — have misread him.

It’s a mistake, I think, to conclude that Obama is not extremely liberal in his political bent. It’s that Obama’s extremism is tempered by ineptitude. He simply hasn’t been able to craft legislation that embodies that “new foundation” — a pretty leftist formulation, by the way.

So the Left and Right are not both wrong about Obama. To the contrary, they both have it right. Obama is, as the Left bemoans, emotionally remote, indecisive, and lacking in deal-making interest and skills. He is, as the Right decries, a “big government liberal … arrogant toward foes, condescending toward allies and runs a partisan political machine.” The two are not mutually exclusive. It is the confluence of both that has whittled his support and rendered him, at least for now, an unsuccessful president.

David Brooks thinks Obama has gotten a bum rap:

Liberals are wrong to call him weak and indecisive. He’s just not always pursuing their aims. Conservatives are wrong to call him a big-government liberal. That’s just not a fair reading of his agenda.

According to Brooks, Obama is simply “a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism.” It’s those wacky partisans on both sides who don’t get the essence of the man — the moderate but not too leftiness of Obama. Brooks reaches this conclusion, in part, by ignoring the totality of the programs, spending, and ambition of Obama’ s agenda. (Leaving out cap-and-trade, the plan for a mammoth tax hike, the takeover of two car companies, the mound of spending, and the foreign-policy apology fetish makes Obama sound a whole lot less radical than he is.) And frankly, as Obama presides over the strangulation of the D.C. school-voucher program, it’s preposterous to argue that “Obama has been the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency.”

Brooks also ignores that it’s not only conservative partisans who have recoiled against Obama’s excesses. Obama has lost the middle of the country, as independents’ support has plummeted. These voters are freaked out by the spending and the fixation on a mammoth health-care plan. A great deal of the country has come to see Obama and the Democratic party as “too liberal.” And poll after poll shows a newfound appreciation for “fewer services, lower taxes” over “more services, higher taxes.” If Obama is horribly misunderstood, then a large segment of the country — not simply die-hard conservatives — have misread him.

It’s a mistake, I think, to conclude that Obama is not extremely liberal in his political bent. It’s that Obama’s extremism is tempered by ineptitude. He simply hasn’t been able to craft legislation that embodies that “new foundation” — a pretty leftist formulation, by the way.

So the Left and Right are not both wrong about Obama. To the contrary, they both have it right. Obama is, as the Left bemoans, emotionally remote, indecisive, and lacking in deal-making interest and skills. He is, as the Right decries, a “big government liberal … arrogant toward foes, condescending toward allies and runs a partisan political machine.” The two are not mutually exclusive. It is the confluence of both that has whittled his support and rendered him, at least for now, an unsuccessful president.

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Congress and Obama in Trouble

The New York Times poll paints a bleak picture for Obama and an even bleaker one for incumbents in Congress. Obama’s approval is down to 46 percent, while only 42 percent approve of his handling of the economy. His ratings on health care and the deficit are in George W. Bush territory (i.e., the mid-30s). A sizable plurality think he has spent too much time on health care, and a majority think he’s not spent enough time on the economy. Noteworthy is the 56 percent (only topped by 61 percent in 1996) who prefer a smaller government with fewer services. The Obama revolution, at least so far, has been a bust.

But Obama’s ratings are glowing compared to what Congress receives. Only 15 percent approve of Congress’s performance. (That seems high, come to think of it. But perhaps those cheering for paralysis are among the 15 percent.) And a stunning 81 percent think most lawmakers don’t deserve to keep their jobs.

This and other polls reinforce the conclusion that Obama’s gambit — keep plugging away at health-care reform, avoid serious spending restraint, and offer no bones to moderates within his party — is a dangerous one. The public wants precisely the opposite of what he persists in offering. It likewise suggests that Nancy Pelosi’s pole-vaulting commitment to ObamaCare and her aversion to a spending freeze are perfectly at odds with public opinion. She and her members, if they keep this up, risk further infuriating the electorate. (Granted, it is hard to do worse than 15 percent approval.)

Imagine if Obama and the Democrats listened to the public. They would toss ObamaCare aside. They would propose meaningful cuts in government spending. They’d work on jobs and economic growth. In short, they’d do what Republicans are suggesting. Do the Democrats suspect the Republicans are concocting a devilish plot to sink them? That is as good an explanation as any for the Reid-Pelosi-Obama triumvirate’s refusal to consider seriously their opponents’ suggestions. The Democrats refuse to be rescued from their own folly, it seems.

It is a long way until the November elections. Public opinion can shift dramatically. But it will have to shift very dramatically for many Democrats to avoid getting wiped out. And that is quite unlikely, as long as they keep doing what the voters hate.

The New York Times poll paints a bleak picture for Obama and an even bleaker one for incumbents in Congress. Obama’s approval is down to 46 percent, while only 42 percent approve of his handling of the economy. His ratings on health care and the deficit are in George W. Bush territory (i.e., the mid-30s). A sizable plurality think he has spent too much time on health care, and a majority think he’s not spent enough time on the economy. Noteworthy is the 56 percent (only topped by 61 percent in 1996) who prefer a smaller government with fewer services. The Obama revolution, at least so far, has been a bust.

But Obama’s ratings are glowing compared to what Congress receives. Only 15 percent approve of Congress’s performance. (That seems high, come to think of it. But perhaps those cheering for paralysis are among the 15 percent.) And a stunning 81 percent think most lawmakers don’t deserve to keep their jobs.

This and other polls reinforce the conclusion that Obama’s gambit — keep plugging away at health-care reform, avoid serious spending restraint, and offer no bones to moderates within his party — is a dangerous one. The public wants precisely the opposite of what he persists in offering. It likewise suggests that Nancy Pelosi’s pole-vaulting commitment to ObamaCare and her aversion to a spending freeze are perfectly at odds with public opinion. She and her members, if they keep this up, risk further infuriating the electorate. (Granted, it is hard to do worse than 15 percent approval.)

Imagine if Obama and the Democrats listened to the public. They would toss ObamaCare aside. They would propose meaningful cuts in government spending. They’d work on jobs and economic growth. In short, they’d do what Republicans are suggesting. Do the Democrats suspect the Republicans are concocting a devilish plot to sink them? That is as good an explanation as any for the Reid-Pelosi-Obama triumvirate’s refusal to consider seriously their opponents’ suggestions. The Democrats refuse to be rescued from their own folly, it seems.

It is a long way until the November elections. Public opinion can shift dramatically. But it will have to shift very dramatically for many Democrats to avoid getting wiped out. And that is quite unlikely, as long as they keep doing what the voters hate.

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