The defining gamble of Barack Obama's presidency is that the public today is willing to accept more government activism -- more programs, more spending, and even more taxes -- than it was under Bill Clinton.
The perception that Clinton initially governed as an old-style "tax-and-spend" Democrat after campaigning as a transformative "New Democrat" helped trigger the 1994 landslide that gave the GOP both the House and Senate. Now Obama is proposing to expand government's reach across more fronts than Clinton did, and he is offering less of the political armor-plating that Clinton thought was necessary to defend such an activist agenda--ideas like welfare reform and shrinking the federal workforce.
Polls capture the risks of Obama's strategy. Since 2004, the country's partisan balance has shifted more than its ideological balance. The broad repudiation of President George W. Bush has allowed Democrats to open their widest advantage over Republicans in party identification since the 1980s. But the ideological alignment hasn't changed nearly as much: More Americans identify as conservatives than as liberals, and moderates hold the balance. Even as the financial meltdown has tarnished business, polls have found continuing skepticism that the best response is to expand government's economic role.
That skepticism crackled through the second Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey, released on July 24. The results measured Americans' attitudes toward economic opportunity, and they reinforced the findings from the first poll, which this spring explored views about economic risk.
That initial survey found that on most financial challenges, such as accumulating assets or funding retirement, more Americans looked first to their own actions to provide greater security, rather than to the government. The new survey, which polled 1,202 adults from July 5 to 12, likewise found that a 40 percent plurality cited their own efforts, such as sharpening their skills, as the best way to expand opportunity. Just one in six picked an Obama-like government approach that invests in new technologies and training. (Slightly more chose a conservative agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.) Asked whether government at all levels today creates more opportunities or obstacles to upward mobility, just 38 percent picked the former while a 52 percent majority said that government mostly impedes their efforts to get ahead.
An ABC News/Washington Post survey released this week underscored the dangers those attitudes could pose for Obama. That poll found an ominous spike in the share of Americans who see him as a tax-and-spend Democrat and recorded declines in approval of his handling of the economy, health care, and the federal deficit. Yet the survey also showed Obama enjoying a solid (if slightly eroded) 59 percent overall approval rating and receiving strong reviews for his leadership qualities. Similarly, in the Allstate/National Journal poll, a plurality still said that the president's agenda will increase their own economic opportunities.
Together, these results place Obama in a position reminiscent of President Reagan's in 1981. As Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, has noted, most Americans remained confident in Reagan as a leader even as many concluded that he wanted to retrench government more than they preferred. Today, Kohut says, most Americans retain faith in Obama's leadership even as many conclude that he is trying to expand government more than they prefer.
That dynamic presents the White House and congressional Democrats with a difficult and consequential choice. One response would be to shelve Obama's sweeping proposals to combat climate change and reform health care. That seems to be the initial inclination of many Democratic moderates in Congress. But if Democrats allow those initiatives (especially health care) to fall, they will provide ammunition for Republicans to claim that the Democratic majority has have failed to govern -- another argument that propelled the 1994 GOP landslide.
The alternative for Democrats is to bet that Obama, like Reagan but in reverse, can ultimately reshape public attitudes about government. One reason so many middle-class voters distrust government is that they don't believe it provides them much tangible help. As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg argued during the Clinton health care struggle, government-guaranteed health insurance could change that. In part, that is why Republicans fought universal coverage so fiercely then -- and are doing so again.
Including tougher cost controls in their universal coverage plan would help Obama and congressional Democrats address voter unease about federal spending. But however Democrats fortify their health reform proposals, they must soon decide whether it's riskier to confront the howling public suspicion about government or to retreat from it.
This article appears in the July 25, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.