Public Stands Between Reagan and Obama

Public Stands Between Reagan and Obama

By David Paul Kuhn - March 5, 2009

Barack Obama may symbolize a shift away from the Reagan-era creed of small government. But the majority of Americans have not yet followed this ideological turn, based upon recent months of polling.

In the president's effort to push for the most expansive federal role since Lyndon Johnson, his obstacle may not be convincing Republicans but convincing the public.

It was Ronald Reagan, at his first inauguration, who famously declared that "in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

About six out of 10 Americans still agree with Reagan, according to Rasmussen national polls taken in late February and early October.

Reagan's line struck a chord a quarter of a century ago because Americans' view of government had changed. Gallup asked in 1937 and 1981: "Which theory of government do you favor -- concentration of power in the federal government or concentration of power in the state government?" In Reagan's day, a majority of Americans favored power being concentrated in the states. During FDR's presidency, 1937, just a third of Americans held the same view. Even then only a plurality of Americans, 46 percent, favored concentrating power in Washington.

A majority of Americans have, in fact, favored a smaller federal government, rather than larger, from the outset of Bill Clinton's presidency to the outset of Obama's, according to ABC News/Washington Post polling.

Obama does represent a different kind of Democrat. It was Clinton who pledged that the era of big government was over. Obama signifies its return. He, unlike Clinton, is not constrained by a conservative era as he faces down a far worse economy than Clinton knew. This explains why Americans, on some crucial policies, are with him.

Multiple polls show that a large majority of Americans now support national health insurance. But historical data suggests that even as the public backs one measure, Obama may eventually face blow back against the broad sweep of his agenda.

By autumn 1966 Gallup found that more Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the Great Society than favorable, by a margin of 44 to 32 percent.

In fact, since 1965 Gallup has asked Americans whether big business, big labor or big government is the "biggest threat to the country in the future." Americans have picked big government as the answer every year, including as recently as early December.

Historian Henry Steele Commager called this skepticism of the federal government an American "notion," rooted in a basic belief that there is a conflict between man and state. Commager thought the New Deal ended that conflict. But even today, this conflict haunts Obama. The nation, in broad philosophical terms, has more often than not sided with Jefferson over Hamilton.

In spite of our Jeffersonian tendency, there is daylight for Democrats. In 2005 and 2006, like in the mid 1990s, Americans were even more likely to name big government as a "threat" to the nation's future.

This week's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that a slim majority of Americans believe the "government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people." But the public had the same view in the summer of 2007 and 2008; it's one more indication Americans view of government has not shifted nearly as rapidly as their household net worth.

Meanwhile, the same poll found that about six out of 10 Americans are more concerned about the federal government spending "too much money" to boost the economy rather than "too little." Less than a third of Americans are more concerned Washington will spend "too little money" to revive the economy.

No less, however, Republicans risk misunderstanding this public angst. Americans say they want Obama to take action. A large majority of Americans were behind Obama's stimulus package. Post/ABC polling found more support for Obama's stimulus plan than Reagan enjoyed for a similar measure early in his presidency.

Obama's problem is though that even his public support carries a caveat. Americans only want measures that seem to reach Main Street, not Wall Street.

More than eight out of 10 Americans support "new government programs to help create jobs" while roughly two-thirds of the public supports aid to state governments in "serious financial trouble" and "giving aid" to Americans in danger of losing their home, Gallup finds. Meanwhile, only about four out of 10 Americans support U.S. aid to automakers in "danger of going bankrupt" or aid to U.S. banks or financial institutions in danger of "failing."

So Americans might agree with Reagan's stated-though-unrealized belief in small government, but today they are not believers in Reagan's trickledown economics or conservative economic policy.

In early January, the Journal/NBC poll found that by a two to one margin the public saw "government spending that will help create jobs" as more important to stimulating the economy than "tax cuts that will allow people to spend more."

Still, distrust in Washington remains a yellow light for Democrats. The recent ABC/Post poll found that a slim majority of Americans do not believe Washington "will put in place adequate controls to oversee the stimulus spending."

Obama's burden ahead is now twofold. One, despite the limitations of the president to shape the economy, eight out of 10 Americans believe that if leaders in Washington "make the right decisions" they can "improve" the economy a "great deal" or at least a "fair amount," by Gallup's measure. As the president himself has said, his political future is now tied to the economy.

Obama's second problem is with his flank. Liberals want big government measures. It is only liberals today who strongly reject Reagan's view of government as the problem, by a two to one margin. On the other hand, moderates today agree with Reagan's statement by a 47 to 32 percent margin.

A president's currency is his popularity. That means Obama's risk is in the middle. Only 37 percent of independents were "generally positive" about Obama's recent budget proposal, according to Gallup. The Pew Research Center also recently found that nearly three-quarters of Democrats believe the nation is now on the "right track." Only 41 percent of independents agree.

Obama does not need to convert the public to liberalism. But it's clear that while Americans want Washington to take rare steps to improve the economy, the public remains skeptical of the guiding philosophy behind those steps.

The era of cries for small government is likely over, for now. But Americans have not yet converted to big government either.

Obama once bothered his base by stating that, "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America." Obama added that Reagan "just tapped into what people were already feeling."

The public is not where Reagan was in the early 1980s. But it's also not yet philosophically where Obama is going. The president's capacity to hold the middle and maintain his mandate will depend on him not getting too far afield of his public.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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