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Popularity Contest

Has Obama gone too far?

On the inside cover of the last issue of The New Republic, the conservative American Future Fund (AFF) took out an advertisement helpfully warning moderate Democrats to abandon health care reform. The ad features head shots of numerous Democratic members of Congress who lost their seats in 1994. The headline reads, “THE LOSERS OF 1994 … THANKS TO HEALTH CARE!”

I hesitate to impugn the intellectual integrity of any of the good folks who purchase space in this magazine in order to share their concerns about public policy. Yet I cannot help but wonder if AFF has truly proffered this advice in good faith. The ad calls health care reform a “Majority Killer.” Yet Democrats did not lose their seats in 1994 because they enacted health care reform. They failed to enact, or even vote on, health care reform. So it’s hard to see why this historical example recommends letting health care reform die an ignominious death as an attractive strategy for the majority party.

The political landscape looks worse for the Democrats than it did a year ago. Why has that happened? Republicans are expending a great deal of energy trying to convince Democrats that it’s because the Obama administration has overreached. Senator Lamar Alexander helpfully warns that Obama’s “policies, and those pushed by the congressional Democrats, are scaring the daylights out of people.”

The most direct and immediate goal of this campaign is to spook moderate Democrats into abandoning health care reform. It is true that some of Obama’s spending programs--the stimulus and the bailouts of the auto and financial sectors--have little public support. But health care reform actually remains quite popular. Many people think the right has won the health care debate, since polls show that narrow but stable majorities of Americans disapprove of Obama’s health care plan. The problem with this gauge is that it lumps together Obama’s critics from the right with those from the left.

For instance, one recent poll asks whether the Democratic plans create too much government involvement, the right amount, or not enough. Too much gets 42 percent, the right amount 34 percent, and not enough 21 percent. Another question shows that only 28 percent of Americans think the bill goes too far in expanding coverage to the uninsured, 33 percent say it expands coverage the right amount, and 35 percent say it does not go far enough. In both cases, majorities of the public either support Obama’s approach or wish it went further.

Moreover, a clear majority of Americans say that they want the Democrats to pass a health care bill with a public option, even if this means it would get no GOP votes--a striking result, given the misty-eyed sentiment Americans generally display toward bipartisanship in all its forms.

All of these results suggest that the Democrats’ biggest obstacle on health care reform is not a fundamental lack of public agreement but public weariness with the endless legislative grind. Vulnerable congressional Democrats may have individual interests in establishing their moderate bona fides by challenging their party leadership. But they have a far stronger collective interest in passing a bill.

The second, broader Republican goal is to essentially delegitimize Obama’s presidency. This argument, building ever since Obama took office, reached a crescendo in the wake of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections. Americans never supported Obama’s agenda, say conservatives; and now, thanks to his attempt to impose it, we are seeing the inevitable backlash.

“If the president--opposed by a majority of Americans, with almost no support from the other party--imposes an ideologically divisive health reform, it will smack of radicalism, reinforce polarization and may cede the ideological center to Republicans for years to come,” cries former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. Democrats “know this legislation is … possible only because of temporary liberal majorities,” complains a Wall Street Journal editorial.

How, you might ask, does this differ from George W. Bush ramming through unpopular regressive tax cuts? Well, those were temporary conservative majorities. The other difference, of course, is that Obama out-polled his opponent by eight-and-a-half million votes, a margin that exceeded Bush’s 2000 popular-vote edge by, oh, roughly nine million votes.

Shouldn’t Obama’s actual election count for more than two low-turnout gubernatorial races? Oh no. The off-year elections prove Obama’s presidency is a fluke. Here is Fox News all-star panelist and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer:

2008 was a historical anomaly. A uniquely charismatic candidate was running at a time of deep war weariness, with an intensely unpopular Republican president, against a politically incompetent opponent, amid the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression.

Did factors other than Obama’s platform (his charisma, eight years of declining median income, Sarah Palin) help him win? No doubt. This happens every election. Krauthammer gloats of the 2009 elections, “The return to the norm is happening now.” Got that? The normal state of affairs is an odd-year, low-turnout election occurring in just two states, which have voted against the incumbent party for the past 20 years, with no national candidates on the ballot, and with double-digit unemployment. That’s a perfectly calibrated measure of public preference on national issues. But Obama’s election was an accident.

Sure, Obama has lost popularity since his inauguration. In a worldwide recession, voters have thrown out incumbent parties of all stripes. And Democrats will probably take a beating next year.

But, if Americans were recoiling at Obama’s liberalism, rather than lashing out at the poor economy, you’d expect to see the Democratic Party losing favor and the GOP regaining it. In fact, the opposite remains true. (A recent poll had the Dems’ favorable rating at 53-41, and the Republicans’ at 36-54.) Given the circumstances, the striking fact about the political landscape is how little has changed since November 2008.

Democrats’ failure to realize that the public never really supported their agenda, argues Krauthammer, “is the fundamental cause of the Democratic debacle of 2009.” But 2009 isn’t a debacle, and it won’t be unless Democrats get bluffed into making it one.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.