Obama’s lost opportunity?

Has Obama’s presidency been a wasted opportunity for American liberalism? Was there ever a prospect of establishing a permanent Democratic majority? Via Mathew Yglesias an interesting analysis from an American dating site using membership data to track the relation between ideological identification and partisan allegiance. In summary: Democrats are much more ideologically diverse than Republicans. They are rather surprised by this but it makes sense  there are many more self-identified ‘conservatives’ than ‘liberals’, so for the Democrats to get 50% they must be winning the support of many conservatives. But self-identified conservatives are not all Big-C Conservatives in the Republican sense. Republicans are prone to political overreach when they assume that all self-identified conservatives must be Conservative Republicans, Democrats over reach when they assume that all Democrats must be liberals. There are many more conservative Democrats than liberal Republicans. This has implications for the health-care debate. Some of the opposition to health-care reform is driven by core conservatives, this is the opposition that liberals focus on because of its obvious absurdity,  but some is driven by moderate voters who although they self-identify as conservative are not committed to all the values of the conservative movement. Polls suggest strong concern about the impact of reform on the budget deficit:

Even though the president and Democratic leaders have repeatedly pointed out that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office called the reform package a deficit-reducer, six in 10 Americans still think the new health care reforms will increase the budget deficit. Just 13 percent think the reforms will decrease the deficit and another 15 percent expect no effect.But Americans are relatively more positive about one outcome of the legislation — the effect the new reforms will have on consumers and the health insurance industry. Thirty-five percent think the reforms will increase consumer protection against health insurance companies, and just 20 percent expect that to decrease. Still, as was the case before the bill was passed, about half of Americans say they don’t have a good understanding of how the new reforms will affect them and their family. Fifty-three percent find the reforms confusing, and just 41 percent understand their impact.

These are the voters the Democrats should focus on if they are to have any hope of salvaging their Congressional majority. Increasing public doubts about Democratic economic management are part of this. A broader lesson here, liberals should beware of seeing conservatives as monolithic whole, otherwise they can oscillate from a false optimism to a desperate pessimism (this is applicable to the challenge of political Islam). The concerns of many Tea-Party activists are quite mainstreabut conservative as is the mainstream. On the economy Eleanor Clift:

The two Clinton-era sidekicks, Carville and Greenberg, shared the results of a Democracy Corps poll on voter attitudes about Obama and the economy at a breakfast Wednesday with reporters in Washington. The economic numbers are “grim” and selling health-care reform will be a “hard slog.” Pessimism has jumped, particularly among new voters who supported Obama, unmarried women, and people under 30, who are economically worse off. When Obama in his State of the Union address talked about how his policies had brought the economy back from the brink of depression, the dial tests in Greenberg’s focus group “went through the floor. People hated it. They thought it was arrogant and he wasn’t in touch with their experience,” said Greenberg. Health-care reform, touted as a major legislative achievement, elicited ho-hums in a focus group. Voters are open to it, but can’t understand why the administration has been absent during the jobs crisis.

Reminds us of the 1996 and 1998 elections in Australia, Keatings’ accurate claims of an economic recovery fell on deaf ears in 1996 whsilt in 1998 many conservatives who continued to feel economic pain voted One Nation. In the US this is linked to the broader question of low-income conservative voters, Ronald Brownstein:

But whites still cast about three-quarters of votes. And if most remain convinced that health reform primarily benefits the poor and uninsured, Democrats could find themselves caught in an unusual populist crossfire during this fall’s elections. Obama has already been hurt by the perception, fanned by Republicans, that the principal beneficiaries of his efforts to repair the economy are the same interests that broke it: Wall Street, big banks, and the wealthy. The belief that Washington has transferred benefits up the income ladder is pervasive across society but especially pronounced among white voters with less than a college education, the group that most resisted Obama in 2008. Now health care could threaten Democrats from the opposite direction by stoking old fears, particularly among the white working class, that liberals are transferring income down the income ladder to the “less deserving.” In the Kaiser poll, even fewer noncollege than college-educated whites said that the plan would benefit the country. In one sense, that’s ironic: Census figures show that noncollege whites are more than twice as likely to lack health insurance as whites with a degree. But these working-class whites have grown more skeptical than better-educated whites that government cares about their needs. And the searing recession has only hardened those doubts. In a recent memo, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg warned that these anxious and alienated voters are approaching a “tipping point” that would send them hurtling toward Republicans in November. House Democrats seem aware of that risk: Of the 34 Democrats who opposed the final health care bill, 28 represent districts with an above-average share of whites without college educations. These trends frame perhaps the Democrats’ greatest political challenge today: convincing economically squeezed white voters that Washington understands their distress. On health care, that means emphasizing the bill’s provisions that will most quickly benefit those with coverage, led by insurance reform (such as allowing adult children to remain longer on their parents’ policies) and more prescription drug help for seniors. “The goal is to make this a middle-class health care bill,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says. Simultaneously, Democrats hope that the approaching Senate debate on financial reform will portray them as advocates for average families — and Republicans as defenders of banking and investment interests that are resisting tougher regulation. Greenberg says his recent polling shows that Obama’s collision with insurers on health reform has already softened the belief that Democrats favor Wall Street over Main Street. He predicts the financial fight “will shift it further.” That could be. But despite a Gallup Poll showing a post-passage bump in support for the health care bill, skepticism that government will ever deliver for them is bred in the bone for many white voters, especially those in the working class. Health care reform won’t win sustained acceptance — or politically benefit the Democrats who finally shouldered it into law — unless it begins to excise those deeply embedded doubts.

Yglesias responds:

When Obama does one thing, these folks say he’s only helping rich people. When Obama does something else, these folks say he’s only helping poor people. And since Obama is only helping poor people and rich people, they don’t like Obama! That doesn’t seem very likely to me. More plausibly, we’re talking about a group that doesn’t like Barack Obama and that has come to like him even less as economic conditions deteriorate. Consequently, they view his initiatives skeptically and are inclined to believe the worst about them.

Maybe. But how did American liberals after the worst crisis of capitalism in decades end up in this position? I was once sympathetic to the argument that compered Obama’s communication skills unfavourably with those of Reagen in the early 1980s at a time of economic difficulty. However Brendan Nyhan argues that the record of public opinion in the early 1980s does not support this story:

As I’ve repeatedly noted, journalists have a tendency to attribute electoral outcomes and poll ratings to political tactics rather than the underlying fundamentals (most notably, the state of the economy).

But was there ever a possibility for a major liberal realignment akin to what occurred in the 1930s? If there ever was the opportunity is now long lost. Noteworthy that popular discussion of deep-seated trends behind Obama’s victory tended to focus on the mobilisation of new voters whereas in fact his victory can be accounted for by 2004 Bush voters. Real realignment only occurs after an election as a new government responds effectively.

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