It is remarkably poor timing by U.S. President Barack Obama to inhabit the White House as an ideological liberal in a conservative American decade. For a while, the Great Recession gave him cover. He was able, briefly, to expand the federal government (from 19.6 per cent of GDP to 24.4 per cent) without provoking much resistance. But the zeitgeist held. Roughly 40 per cent of Americans describe themselves as conservatives. Only 20 per cent describe themselves as liberals. And American conservatives want smaller government, not bigger government.
From this perspective, Mr. Obama will presumably sweat his Sisyphean task – pushing liberal rocks up conservative slopes in an avalanche zone – for the next 15 months.
As it happens, Mr. Obama’s improbable labours coincide with the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth – and Gallup’s determination that Americans now rate Mr. Reagan as the greatest president in U.S. history. Once dismissed by liberals as “an amiable dunce,” Mr. Reagan finishes ahead of John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But this isn’t too surprising. Mr. Obama has frequently claimed Mr. Reagan as a role model for his own presidency and has used Mr. Reagan’s phrases so freely that he has been accused of intellectual property theft.
It didn’t work. When Mr. Reagan took office, he was a conservative in a liberal country. When he left office, he was a conservative in a conservative country. Mr. Obama took office in a conservative country and will exit it in a conservative country. Although old-left warriors dispute this assertion, the statistical support for it is impeccable.
Normally, a president loses popular support as he grapples his way through the crises that befall his term in office. The percentage of voters who identified themselves as Democrats fell during the presidencies of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. And the percentage who identified themselves as Republicans fell during the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerry Ford, George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr.
“Ronald Reagan stands out as the lone exception,” notes Michael Franc, vice-president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation. The percentage of voters who identified themselves as Republicans increased by three points during Mr. Reagan’s presidency (from 27 per cent to 30 per cent); the percentage who identified themselves as Democrats fell (from 41 per cent to 35 per cent). A Pew Foundation study concluded that these numbers understate the Reagan legacy because he had already moved the country to the right before he took office – raising the percentage who identified themselves as Republicans in 1980, the year before he assumed office, from 23 per cent to 27 per cent: a total swing, for the most part permanent, of seven percentage points.
A similar result is found when comparing the first two years of Mr. Reagan’s presidency with Mr. Obama’s. Both assumed office during comparable recessions (though the famous “misery index” was twice as high in 1981, with inflation at 14 per cent and interest rates at 22 per cent). In Mr. Reagan’s darkest years, the percentage of voters who identified themselves as Republicans increased (by two percentage points); in Mr. Obama's first two years, the percentage of voters who identified themselves as Democrats has fallen (by four points). It is by such small gains or losses that presidential winners and losers are made.
Mr. Franc argues that Mr. Reagan did more than revive the fortunes of the Republican Party; he launched an enduring “renaissance of American conservatism.” Before Mr. Reagan, registered Republicans rarely broke through the 30 per cent level; since Mr. Reagan, according to American National Election Surveys, they have rarely (once in 12 surveys) fallen below it.
Further, the vast majority of Republicans now describe themselves as conservatives. Further still, independent voters – who effectively elected Mr. Obama – have turned conservative, too. The most recent Gallup opinion poll (June) gives him less than one-third of independent voters.
“Skepticism of government is at a half-century high,” Mr. Franc writes in National Review. “Americans are more willing than ever to embrace limited-government solutions to our existential debt crisis.”
Mr. Obama was crushed in the debt ceiling rubble. He will almost certainly be crushed again in the credit rating rubble. His best shot now is to get back up and let gravity prevail with radical tax reform that slashes rates and closes loopholes – as proposed a year ago by his own commission on fiscal fixes, and as practised 30 years ago by his own erstwhile presidential hero.