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Michael Barone: Weak Obama Draws Strength From Bush

The unpopularity of the Democrats' big-government measures has more to do with perceived Republican incompetence than a shift in fundamental attitudes

In trying to understand what is happening in the nation and world, we all employ narratives — story lines that indicate where things are going and what is likely to happen next. We can check the validity of these narratives by observing whether events move in the indicated direction. If so, the narrative is confirmed. But if things seem to be moving in an entirely different direction, it’s time to discard the narrative and look for another.

Michael Barone
Michael Barone

When President Barack Obama took office, most Americans and certainly most of the media had a narrative in mind. Call it Narrative A. The financial crisis and the ensuing deep recession had removed the blinkers from voters’ eyes and moved Americans away from reliance on markets and toward reliance on government.

The new president’s call for hope and change would be followed by enactment of big-government policies — a big-spending stimulus package, government-led health-care reform, restrictions on carbon emissions and the effective abolition of the secret ballot in unionization elections. The new president’s powers of persuasion would sweep Republicans along and make for bipartisan change.

It certainly seemed plausible. New Deal historians had taught us that economic collapse increases support for big government. Opponents of the Obama program seemed incoherent and demoralized. But Narrative A looks increasingly shaky. The unions’ anti-secret ballot bill is going nowhere, and neither, it seems, is carbon emissions legislation. The stimulus package is widely regarded as a failure, and the Democrats’ various health-care bills aren’t winning majorities in polls. If anything, Americans are more leery of big government than they were a few years ago.

Moreover, the balance of enthusiasm has shifted. The tea parties and town halls have shown that millions of Americans are strongly opposed to big-government measures. The Obama e-mail lists that brought in so much money and so many volunteers in 2008 now seem unable to get a few dozen people to a rally, and Democratic fundraising is alarmingly low for a party in power.

So it may be time to advance a Narrative B. It goes something like this. George W. Bush’s inability to produce progress in Baghdad and New Orleans, along with floundering by congressional Republicans, led voters to give Democrats majorities in Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008. But the huge flow of dollars designed to staunch the financial crisis (TARP), finance bailouts and fund the stimulus package raised fears that government would crowd out private-sector growth.

In this narrative, Democrats’ big congressional majorities owe more to perceived Republican incompetence and to the $400 million that labor unions poured into Democratic campaigns than to any change in fundamental attitudes toward the balance between markets and government.

Narrative B does a better job than Narrative A of explaining the unpopularity of the Democrats’ big-government programs and the unwillingness of many Democratic officeholders, especially those facing voters in 2010, to support them. It does a better job of explaining the shift in the balance of enthusiasm from 2008 to 2009.

It still may be possible for Democrats to jam through some of their health-care proposals, and tax rates are scheduled to go up when the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010. The Democrats may be able to make basic policy changes because of accidental advantages. In the framework of Narrative B, government-directed health insurance and vastly enhanced union power would be reactions to Bush’s inept handling of Iraq before the surge and his hapless response to Hurricane Katrina.

Narrative B doesn’t explain all current developments satisfactorily. Voters still have a lingering distaste for Republican politicians and give higher (or less low) ratings to the Democratic than the Republican Party. Republican policy proposals, while not nonexistent as the Democrats charge, have not caught the public’s attention and may prove no more popular than the Democrats’ health insurance and cap-and-trade proposals. And Democratic proposals may turn out to be more popular than they are today.

But overall, Narrative B has done a better job so far of explaining 2009 than Narrative A. Which suggests that it’s time for fans of Narrative A who don’t like Narrative B to come up with Narrative C.

Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and principal coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him.

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