President Obama’s speech last night reminded me of what I’ll call his disconnect problem: Not a personal one, and not even so much a policy one, but one that cuts to basic political philosophy. It’s about the size and role of government in society.
We last got at this in the fall, just before the midterm elections, when the president admittedly was at low ebb. Asked what they prefer – smaller government that providers fewer services, or larger government that does more – 57 percent of registered voters opted for smaller government. We then asked what they think Obama prefers. Larger government, said 75 percent.
What “smaller government” means, and whose ox gets gored en route, is a vexing question. But setting aside the operational aspect, the perceptional gap is a wide one, with Obama seen as well away from the majority preference. It’s a gap expressed in other data as well; in a WSJ/NBC poll just last week, for instance, 45 percent perceived Obama as a liberal – well down from its peak, but still twice as many as define themselves as one.
These perceptions hang in the air when the president discusses things like investments and the development of infrastructure to build a better future. Other presidents, unburdened by the “size of government” disconnect, could issue similar calls without engendering immediate, squinty-eyed questions about what they were up to and how they were going to pay for it. Not this one, which is why Obama’s “Sputnik moment” line may not resonate as much as he’d hoped. (Plus the fact that those of us old enough to remember Sputnik may be more apt to have a senior moment than any other kind.)
That gets us to the deficit side of the discussion. In not dissimilar circumstances in 1983, Ronald Reagan, as I pointed out Monday, attacked the deficit with cold warrior gusto, calling it a “clear and present danger to the basic health of our Republic.” Obama took on the deficit too, but in less apocalyptic terms, and not in prescriptive sense until he was more than halfway through his address.
More important is the comparative emphasis. Obama defended deficit spending after the financial meltdown, saying it “was necessary to keep credit flowing, save jobs and put money in people’s pockets.” He went on: “But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable.”
Reagan, by contrast, offered no exculpations, less Accounting 101 and more of a call to arms: “To assure a sustained recovery, we must continue getting runaway spending under control to bring those deficits down. If we don't, the recovery will be too short, unemployment will remain too high, and we will leave an unconscionable burden of national debt for our children. That we must not do.”
Credentials like those enabled Reagan to go so far as to call for a “standby tax” if needed for deficit reduction; it’s hard to imagine Obama going there. And while both presidents called for a spending freeze, Obama’s version is vulnerable to Republican suggestions that it’s like locking the liquor cabinet after all the booze is gone.
It may, ultimately, not matter much. The public’s concern about deficits is a function not solely of how much is spent, but of what they get for their money. Criticisms today aren’t so much about the stimulus spending, but about the sense that it simply didn’t produce. $800 billion later, unemployment’s still intolerably high; 86 percent of Americans still say the national economy’s in bad shape; and when we asked in October, 68 percent said the stimulus spending had been mostly wasted.
The president mentioned jobs often in the speech, but without immediate prescriptions on how to produce more of them. Again consider Reagan: “No domestic challenge is more crucial than providing stable, permanent jobs for all Americans who want to work.” He went on to list specifics – “the Employment Act of 1983, designed to get at the special problems of the long-term unemployed, as well as young people trying to enter the job market”; incentives for hiring the long-term unemployed; worker training and relocation assistance; incentives for summer youth employment.
The economy may turn, as it did sharply for Reagan. As we’ve been reporting, while ratings of current conditions remain dismal, economic pessimism is down, blame on Obama for worsening the economy has eased and he’s gained a bit in trust to handle it. He’s also almost unaccountably popular – 54 percent approval with 9.4 percent unemployment is no mean feat. He easily prevails in being seen as more willing than his opponents to work cooperatively. And he’s got a broad personal connection; the fact that 58 percent of Americans think he understands their problems provides essential cartilage when, like recently, the road gets rough.
These boost the president in important ways, even, to some extent, over his disconnect on the size of government. But perhaps not enough, when he talks about investments, to stop all those squinty-eyed questions.
(I expressed some such thoughts, none so clearly, in a post-speech analysis for The Wall Street Journal Online last night. See it here.)
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