As the fifth year of the Obama presidency draws to a close, it may be time to examine the unspoken but powerful assumption behind the policies of the president and his party.
That is the assumption that in times of economic distress Americans would be, more than usual, supportive of or amenable to Big Government programs.
The assumption was widely shared, and not just by Democrats. And it has pretty well been disproven, insofar as any abstract proposition can be disproven, in the five years of the Obama presidency.
The Obama assumption has its origins in the 1930s, in the apparent political and economic success of New Deal programs, and it was propagated with great success by the New Deal historians in books that were bestsellers in the years after World War II.
It is possible to draw different lessons from the 1930s, as I did in my book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan. In this view, Franklin Roosevelt’s initial political success was due to the programs of the so-called First New Deal, which stopped the dizzying downward deflationary spiral in 1933 and 1934.
In contrast, the economic redistribution programs of the so-called Second New Deal produced labor unrest, a sharp recession and a sluggish recovery, and New Deal Democrats lost their congressional majorities. Roosevelt was re-elected in 1940 only because he was a seasoned leader in a world at war.
That’s not how the Obama Democrats read history, however. Once in office with massive majorities they wasted no time in passing an $800 billion stimulus package.
They were confident that the stimulus would prove popular with voters. They must have been puzzled when it didn’t—and when the idea of bailing out underwater homeowners generated not demands for government aid but the formation of the Tea Party movement.
The Obama Democrats may have been puzzled as well when initial poll numbers showed majorities against Obamacare. In a time of economic distress, weren’t Americans interested in getting free stuff?
This assumption ignored the fact that most Americans were not displeased with their current health insurance arrangements. And it overestimated the amount of sympathy that could be generated for the relatively few who couldn’t get insurance because of pre-existing conditions or unanticipated accidents.
In retrospect, it’s also plain that the Obama Democrats underestimated the difficulty of creating a workable framework for governance of the the health care sector, which makes up one-sixth of the economy.
They had evidently read too much Arthur Schlesinger on the glories of the New Deal and too little Friedrich Hayek on the futility of central planning in a complex society.
So they forged ahead with their legislation even after the American people, through the unlikely medium of the voters of Massachusetts, said, "Please don’t pass this bill." People would get to like it—and to know what was in it—after it was passed.
Looking back, it seems that most Americans instinctively shared Hayek’s skepticism more than they hankered for Schlesinger’s celebration of big government.
Some liberals seem to understand this. In a column for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall quotes Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman as saying that in times when a nation is “undergoing a decline in the material realm” it may be less than usually amenable to “greater generosity toward those who, through some combination of natural circumstance, market forces and sheer luck, have been left behind.”
History provides support for that. In the distressed 1930s, when FDR expanded American government, our Anglosphere cousins in Britain, Canada and Australia voted for governments that opposed similar policies.
The Obamacare rollout that began nearly three months ago has proved more disastrous than all but a few critics of the legislation dared to predict. Polling shows increasing opposition to the legislation and to the credibility of Obama Democrats who, falsely, assured people they could keep their policies and their doctors if they liked them.
The apparent skepticism of most voters that government could competently administer the health care sector seems to have been justified—and then some.
Gallup reports that 72 percent of Americans see big government, not big business or big labor, as the biggest threat to the nation’s future—the highest number since the question was first asked in 1965.
The Obama Democrats assumed Americans would embrace big government policies. They seem to have proved the opposite.