Geoffrey Garrett neglects the importance of history and institutions when he compares the fortunes of Obama and Rudd:
In a country of drought and flooding rains, sunburnt Australians care deeply about climate change, and they want their representatives to do something about it. But in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Americans put a premium on choice and are wary of government interference in its exercise – and nowhere are the stakes higher than health care. It consumes one-sixth of the nation’s GDP. Despite a generation of privatisation and deregulation, Australians still look to their government to solve big problems. Despite a generation of rising inequality across the board, Americans are still wary of government intervention in their lives.
This is the old American exceptionalism argument. The classical formulation was that of Louis Hartz who emphasised Australia’s origins as a ‘radical fragment’ settled by convicts and immigrants vs. America formed in the image of Lockean liberalism. Others, such as Brian Fitzpatrick, emphasise how Australia was a big man’s frontier unlike the American landscape of small farmers. But more recent history plays a role. The dysfunctional and disorganised structure of American government makes reform difficult and ensures that reforms are often implemented in an unpopular manner. Theda Skocpol has argued that although late 19th century America spend heavily on pensions, they were civil war pensions, whose politicized allocation and regional bias discredited the idea of national age old pensions. Significant here has been the impact of the 1960s Americans are now more doubtful about government intervention than in the 1960s, a report from the Pew Research Center notes:
A look back at the polling from 1964 and 1965 shows the American public giving broad support to the idea of Medicare. In January 1965, Gallup tested reactions to a congressional plan calling for compulsory health insurance for the elderly that would be financed out of increased Social Security taxes; 63% approved of this plan while just 28% disapproved. Harris polling at the time found comparable levels of public support for Medicare. In addition, Harris showed that, by 46% to 36%, more Americans said they preferred “medical care for the aged funded by Social Security taxes over a plan of expanded private health insurance.” Public reactions are very different these days: First, the polls show the public divided over the government requiring all people to have health insurance. Second, there is opposition to increasing taxes — except on the very wealthy — to pay for insuring the uninsured. Third, even before debate began, nearly half (46%) said in a Pew Research survey they were concerned about government getting too involved in health care, despite their desire for the government to take up the issue. By July, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 54% worrying that the Congress and the president would pass a bill that will not be good for them. Fewer (39%) worried that health care reform will not pass this year. Broad distrust of government — which was not evident in the 1960s — is an important reason why Americans are reacting so differently to health care reform in 2009 than they did in 1965. In 1966, the National Election survey found, as in four previous surveys starting in 1958, a large majority (65%) saying they trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing just about always or most of the time. That majority held through the rest of the decade but withered in the early 1970s. By 1974, just 36% of the public said they trusted the government. And from that point on, pollsters have never again found anything close to a majority of Americans saying they trust Washington. So when a CBS News/New York Times poll shows that 69% are concerned that the quality of their health care will worsen if the government provides health care for everyone, credit a deep cynicism and suspicion about government that even trumps confidence in President Obama. More that anything else, proponents of reform have to overcome distrust of government that was once only evident among Republicans, but today is shared by most independents, and even some Democrats.
Institutions and history shape public opinion. Path dependence is crucial. If George W. Bush’s presidency hampered the Republican cause among new voters it also however contributed to the negative image of government, perhaps Obama’s woes are his political revenge.