Wednesday 3 November 2010

Most Americans still want more (but better) government

The US Democrats have suffered big losses in the mid-term elections, with the Republicans gaining control of the House of Representatives, though the Democrats have held on in the Senate.

It is a significant blow to President Obama, perhaps demonstrating the perils of centrism in an age of polarisation. Obama was too bipartisan when there was no appetite across the aisle, say disappointed supporters. He governed way off to the left, not from the centre, claim Tea Party activists placing the blame for the heated polarisation of American politics on the temperamentally and politically moderate President.

It is difficult to see how Obama's legislative record could have been much stronger. Ezra Klein is right to say that this was the "do something" Congress, perhaps the most active for 40 years. Of course, there were compromises on every issue. That is part of politics, but especially in a US Constitution deliberately designed to make governing difficult. One can quibble about details and tactics in specific cases; it is difficult to identify areas where a much stronger alternative was legislatively possible.

None of this mattered because of the state of the economy

So the charge is that Obama over-reached in expanding government with the fiscal stimulus and healthcare, and under-reached in failing to "fix the economy" in two years.

Americans are deeply ambivalent about the role of government

The rise of the Tea Party has provided the narrative of the election. Americans voted for more active government in 2008, and seem to have changed their mind in frustration that it has not delivered. The reality is more complex.

The Tea Party did energise the Republican Party, yet may well have cost it the Senate with spectacular primary victories which then saw several insurgent candidates heavily defeated among a broader electorate last night. The Republicans more generally have run vigorously against Big Government - and the message has resonated - but very few candidates have proposed any cuts in public spending.

The argument about the role of government which means that the polarisation of US politics goes much deeper than the personalities of Bush and Obama, but is also more complex than a battle between the competing ideals of the progressive and Tea Party movements. The US progressive 'left' and small government right do articulate a significant and enduring ideological schism in US society about the role of government. But perhaps the fundamental reason that it is so difficult to resolve is that most Americans find themselves on both sides of that divide.

The most interesting opinion survey of the election season was carried out by the Washington Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation on the role of government, and published last month. The Washington post reported the headline findings here - and the full survey results are online.

The poll shows both that frustration with government has rarely been higher - when asked to describe government in one word, three-quarters say something negative - yet also that the evidence of an anti-government revolt in public attitudes is in many ways much weaker than it was in 1994. Most Americans often want government to do more, not less, if only it could do it better, but there is insufficient consensus on what that means to make it possible.

94% of Americans say federal government has an important impact on their daily lives. 41% say this is mostly positive and 49% mostly negative.

50% of Americans want more government spending to boost the economy; 46% want reducing the deficit to take priority.

Six in ten Americans (57%) want their representatives to fight for more spending in their districts to spur job creation. 39 per cent want lower spending, even if this impacts on jobs. (Lower spending had a 53-39 lead when a similar question was asked in 1994).

Overall, 49% of Americans want more services from government even if it means higher taxes; 47% would prefer fewer services and lower taxes. In 1994, similar questions found tax cutters ahead by 57% to 28% over higher spenders. (Today, 50% think the budget can be balanced "just by cutting wasteful spending" while 46% think it would be necessary to cut some programmes too. The need or willingness to cut programmes has fallen from 51-55% in 1995).

Strikingly, Americans want more government in many areas. For example, almost two-thirds of Americans think government should be doing more to fight poverty. (This includes half of Tea Party supporters). This is true across several key issues:

- protecting the environment (61% more and 23% same; 15% less role and 3% no role);
- ensuring access to healthcare (52% more and 15% same; 21% less and 13% no role)
- promoting values and morality (40% more and 19% same; 23% less and 17% no role)
- reducing poverty (64% more role; 17% same as now; 13% less and 4% no role).
- setting educational standards (57% more, 18% same; 16% less and 8% no role)
- regulating Wall Street (47% more, 25% same; 18% less and 7% no role)
- fighting terrorism (56% more, 32% same, 10% less, 2% no role)
- regulating gun control (32% more, 25% same, 26% less, 15% no role)

At the same time 46% say the federal government is a threat to their personal rights and freedoms (24% a major threat; 22% a minor threat; 52% not a threat).

A striking 30% think Americans taking violent action against the US government may be justified in some circumstances, a figure which I suspect would generate negligible results in European democracies.

So what next?

Obama retains a strong chance of re-election - it is not obvious that the Republicans will nominate an electable alternative. His approval ratings at two years remain above those of other Presidents who coasted to re-election. But he could well be vulnerable to the "are you better off now than you were four years ago" question, even if his opponents are perceived to have little substantive to offer on the economic front.

Jonathan Freedland's column captures the ambiguity of Bill Clinton's strategy after his 1994 defeat seemed to leave him down and out. This involved a stand-off with the Gingrich Republicans over the government shutdown, but also cooperating to pass welfare reform. A decade later, Clinton pointed to reform cutting welfare rolls by two-thirds, as the economy boomed. But, after the long boom, the impact of recession makes the welfare safety net look very threadbare.

Triangulation got Clinton re-elected. Yet Washington is now even more polarised, and the Republicans may learn from Newt Gingrich's overstretch.

Former Labour Secretary Robert Reich suggests that the economy was the key factor in 1996, making 1936 a better model than 1996, recommending the populist approach which saw FDR re-elected.

Again, Obama will be caught between conflicting advice to compromise and polarise. He will use both strategies, selectively, and perhaps be criticised on all sides for that.

From a European perspective, the most striking thing about US politics is the weakness of party cohesion. The danger is that, in relative US terms, party cohesion has become much stronger when it comes to the veto politics of saying no in a system which can't work work without compromise.

These challenges are not just for the President. Both sides in US politics have some way to work out how to engage a public increasingly angry and frustrated that government won't do what they want, in large part because the public can't agree on what that is.

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