August 31, 2010

August 31, 2010 | Commentary on Political Thought

Obama's Political Elite Leaves the Voters Behind

The graph of President Barack Obama's popularity is stark. In January 2009, 70 per cent of the American people approved of the job he was doing. Only 20 per cent disapproved. Now, 50 per cent disapprove. Only 45 per cent approve. That is not just what conservative pollsters find. It is what they all find.

It is the steadiness of Obama's decline that is truly striking. Since May 2009, there has barely been a month where the President has held ground. For the Democrats, the outlook for the November elections is terrible, with the Republicans likely to take back the House of Representatives and come close to controlling the Senate.

The simple explanation is that Obama would be more popular if the economy were healthier. True: 10 per cent unemployment is winning him no votes. But it's not as though Obama has fiddled while the American economy burned. As he would see it, he has been busy and successful. He passed a series of stimulus bills. He passed a so-called financial reform bill. Above all, he got healthcare reform.

But none of Obama's reforms has been either popular or effective. Stimulus spending has failed, just as conservatives said it would. Beating up on banks is fun for a while, but it ends up sounding like an assault on the private sector as a whole. And healthcare has gone from unpopular to toxic: the most recent CNN poll shows only 40 per cent in favour, and 56 per cent opposed. Those are the kinds of numbers that lose elections.

So, contrary to Bill Clinton, it's not just the economy, stupid. It's that the economy is bad, and the President promised to make it better by imposing new taxes, nationalising companies, and borrowing lots of money. If there is one thing the American people like less than big government, it is big and unsuccessful government.

Obama's dilemma is not that the economy is bad. It's that he's bet his political life on his belief that our problem is the private sector, and the solution is government.

The American people are finding Obama out. And what they are finding out is simple: he belongs to the political class. Not because he is the President, but because of what he believes. He dislikes American exceptionalism. He believes in international institutions and their permanent bureaucracies. He is sceptical about the armed forces. He believes that government is wiser, fairer and cheaper than the market. His beliefs are those of the new American elite, a new class.

Class is a complicated issue in America. Traditionally, Americans believed that America was a classless society. It was never quite as simple as that. But Americans did heartily dislike the presumptions of the elite, and they had tremendous social and geographic mobility.

The elite were separated less by their beliefs than by their manners. That is no longer true. The 1960s tore down the remnants of the old East Coast elite. In place of the never predominant American aristocracy – think of the Kennedys – the radicals erected their new, self-defined elite. That sounds democratic, but in reality nothing could have been less open, less classless.

Contrary to the myth of the radicals, America before the 1960s was open to talent. Yes, there was discrimination. Yes, women were not fully included. But it was not just blue-bloods who went to Harvard: many sons of the working-class did too. As the new elite advanced, America paradoxically became less open.

The new elite justified its rise in the obvious way: they were the best and the brightest. They were separated from the American people not by ancestry, but because they were clever. They deserved power and privilege. They were not simply liberals – they believed that they, and they alone, knew what to do. And they defended their place at the top by defining as deserving the people who agreed with them.

They created a hierarchy not of birth, but of belief. The result is that Harvard today is populated by the sons and daughters of the highly-educated. And this new class, with its pride in its power and glory, diverges sharply in its beliefs from those of most Americans. A recent poll finds that 94 per cent of all Americans believe that there should be limits on what the federal government can do.

Americans have recognised the President for what he is: a well-educated and intelligent man who – like the political class – genuinely believes that he knows what to do, and that others do not.

Unfortunately for him, those others include millions of voters, who sense the President has no great liking for their beliefs, and an unhealthy interest in their wallets.

Obama will not win these voters back by doing things. He has tried that, and it has failed. He can only win them back by being a representative not of the political class, but of the convictions of
the majority of the American people.

That will not be easy for him: it is not who he is. But if he does not change, the American people will in November, and in 2012, make a change for him.

Ted R Bromund is a senior research fellow at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, based at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Yorkshire Post