Two years ago, Americans witnessed what pundits then confidently called a generational liberal ascendancy. In their minds, the ideas of the right had been tried and found wanting. The coalitions that came together to elect Barack Obama president and provide him with strong majorities in both houses of Congress were safe, strong and resilient — and poised to lead a realignment that would endure for decades.
Last week, the president's party lost control of the House and very nearly the Senate. His popularity ratings are in the 30s, the percentage of Americans who believe the country is moving in the right direction is as low as 30, and the number who identify themselves as conservatives or conservative-leaning is at an all-time high.
So how did it all go so wrong for President Obama and this newest "New Deal"? There is a pattern in history here. It was the pattern that swept President Ronald Reagan to power in 1980 and gave Republicans and their "Contract with America" overwhelming electoral victories in 1994.
President Obama's mistake — like that of President Jimmy Carter and, to a lesser extent, President Bill Clinton — is not merely that he overread his mandate, overreached legislatively and overreacted to conditions on the ground, although all that is true.
The mistake all three made is they failed to understand the American people. They didn't recognize the reluctance of our citizens to accept extravagant increases in governmental power.
Our markets had not wrung every blemish from our health care system, so President Obama imposed a huge bureaucracy. Our entrepreneurs had not lifted us from the economic doldrums quickly enough, so he pushed through a stimulus package that has stimulated nothing but our already spiraling national debt. Our carmakers have struggled, so his administration presumed to tell us when, where and how to buy our next car.
Carter didn't trust us to pull ourselves from the economic wreckage, either. And his efforts to try and do this for us proved even more disastrous than it has for the present administration. Interest rates reached 24 percent. Joblessness exceeded 10 percent. An energy crisis brought on by Carter's mismanagement of foreign policy — his failure to project the strength of America's best ideals — led to gasoline rationing and the Iranian hostage crisis. His response to these problems — turn down the thermostat, drive 55 mph, and accept that a "national malaise" had set in and the American Century had ended — created the dissatisfaction that led to the overwhelming White House victory of Ronald Reagan.
Similarly, after Clinton won the presidency with just 43 percent of the vote, he assumed he had a mandate to enact major changes in health care and other areas. Among his first acts was to appoint his wife, Hillary, to head a commission to remake America's health care system. Only, at that time, lawmakers were unwilling to "pass the bill so we can see what's in it," as Speaker Nancy Pelosi would later implore her colleagues, and Clinton suffered a humiliating political defeat.
The examples of Carter and Clinton, however, led to major, positive changes in federal policies. President Reagan took advantage of the repressed economic and creative energy of the Carter years to remake America in his optimistic, liberty-minded image. He cut taxes, reduced regulations, streamlined government and challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." After a rough start, Reagan's initiatives unleashed the largest and longest peacetime economic expansion in American history.
The '94 election had a similar effect on policy. Beginning in 1995, a Republican Congress produced welfare reform, real reductions in discretionary spending and the first balanced budgets since the Eisenhower administration.
The blame for today's economic slump, it should be noted, does not belong to President Obama alone. During the latter part of his predecessor's term in office, both Congress and President George W. Bush began engaging in big-government "solutions" and increased spending. But rather than steer us away from the cliff, Obama's administration has stepped on the gas.
The change in the House and Senate presents an opportunity for conservatives to follow the Reagan model. This means moving the country in a different direction from the Obama administration's policies, which have been 180 degrees from what works — and from what the American people have indicated that they want: reduced spending, lower deficits, control over their own health care, and a less-intrusive federal government.
Whether the new Congress will choose the wiser policy path remains to be seen. But if lawmakers want to carry out the wishes of the American people — and put the country back on the right path — the choice is clear.
Edwin Meese III, U.S. attorney general during President Ronald Reagan's second term, is chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Chicago Tribune