Liberals and much of the Washington establishment are flummoxed by the rapid decline of the President’s and Democratic Party’s political clout over the last 20 months. The plunge from a 53 percent sweep in the 2008 presidential race, accompanied by massive margins in the U.S. House and Senate, to a presidential approval in the low 40-percent level (down from 65% shortly after the Inauguration) and a 20 percent approval of Congress, has now led to a substantial Republican advantage in the generic ballot test.
Theories as to the cause of the collapse range from blaming the media (especially radio and cable talk shows), to Obama’s alleged “coldness,” to his administration’s failure to communicate its successes. John Podesta, one of the more insightful members of the D.C. liberal establishment, offers what the New York Times titled the “Paradox of a Legislative President.” Podesta claims the President’s and Democrats’ problems result from placing the emphasis on staffing, agenda and communication on legislation. The administration, therefore, is seen as involved in partisan strategies consuming immense amounts of political capital and time, while problems, such as the economy and unemployment, linger and appear neglected.
Although Podesta describes some of the public perception problems Obama faces, he misses what the opinion data show. Beginning in June 2009, survey after survey revealed that it was the substance, volume and cost of the liberal Democratic agenda that has caused the bulk of the Democrats’ problem:
• A near majority of Americans now believe the Democratic Party is “too liberal”
• A majority of Americans favor smaller government with fewer services vs. more government with more services – a shift to the right over the last 18 months
• A majority of Americans continue to oppose health care reform
• A large majority of Americans are extremely concerned with public spending and the national debt
The first confirmation of the electorate’s “buyer’s remorse” came in the November 2009 governors’ elections in New Jersey and Virginia.
After the disaster of 1994, Bill Clinton moved strongly to the right to save his presidency (causing some of the lingering hostility among liberals that benefited Obama in his primary with Hillary Clinton). It remains to be seen if Obama will adjust course. Meanwhile, the prevalent liberal think tank doesn’t see substance as a problem, only mistaken strategy.