Note: This is a guest post from Michael A. Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America.” We welcome it as part of a continuing effort to enlist diverse voices in discussions of Democratic strategy. It was first published on June 25, 2009.
Last week Ed highlighted a post over at TNR by William Galston raising a number of red flags about public opinion and growing doubts about the President’s domestic agenda. One of the points Galston made jumped out at me – and has been further crystallized by Mark Sanford’s painful press conference yesterday:
The best thing Democrats have going for them right now is the public’s near-total withdrawal of confidence from the Republican Party, which now “enjoys” its lowest rating ever recorded in the NYT/CBS survey–a finding that Pew confirms.
Yet even with this good news and additionally positive approval ratings for President Obama, Galston offered some rather timid recommendations for Democrats, arguing that they need to focus on “major legislative initiatives . . . that the public can accept” and to make a priority “their ability to persuade the public that something real is being done to rein in spending and debt.”
But I wonder if Bill is making this a bit too complicated and overemphasizing temporary concerns over spending, the deficit and traditional voter suspicion toward government. Right now it seems the most important two factors in public opinion are that the country trusts Barack Obama to do the right thing and they don’t trust Republicans . . . at all.
Right on cue, this week’s new poll from the Washington Post provides compelling evidence of this phenomenon. At the same time that confidence in the President’s stimulus package is softening his approval ratings remains sky high – at 65%. In addition, Obama is far more trusted that his Republican opponents on a host of issues.
Obama maintains leverage because of the continuing weakness of his opposition. The survey found the favorability ratings of congressional Republicans at their lowest point in more than a decade. Obama also has significant advantages over GOP lawmakers in terms of public trust on dealing with the economy, health care, the deficit and the threat of terrorism, despite broad-based Republican criticism of his early actions on these fronts.
The GOP’s approval rating is at 36% with disapproval at 56% and only 22 percent self-identify as Republicans. After watching Mark Sanford yesterday and considering the public spectacle of another prominent Republican publicly confessing private infidelity, it’s hard to imagine that these numbers are going to see much bump in the near future.
Even on the deficit, an issue that both Republicans and Democrats have trumpeted as being of great concern, the President has a twenty-point advantage over the GOP. Recent polls on health care reform show strong support for a so-called public option even though the idea has near unanimous opposition from Republicans. While it can be dangerous to draw too overly broad conclusion from a handful of polls, it’s hard to see any evidence at all that GOP attacks on the President are having much of an impact. In fact, outside their narrow base of supporters, Republicans seem to have almost no credibility, notwithstanding Jim Vandehei and Jonathan Martin’s threadbare effort to find a sliver of hope for the GOP.
The President – even in the face of worsening economic news – has not only enormous credibility, but is widely trusted. Again, according the Post, a majority of voters see the President as someone “”who will be careful with the public’s money” rather than a tax-and-spend Democrat. Quite simply, with strong majorities in the House and Senate, it’s been a long time since the country has seen a political leader with this type of political capital (whatever George Bush might have said in 2005).
So the time has come to use it. Galston’s advice is an argument for playing defense rather than the right course of action for Democrats: going on the offensive. While Obama obviously should not ignore the deficit, he and the Democrats must avoid overreacting to an issue that is generally a stalking horse for a lousy economy. If the economy shows signs of improvement, as it likely will when the stimulus package begins to kick in, I would be willing to make a small wager today that concerns over the deficit will decline. In the end, Democrats will live or die by not only the strength of the economy, but also by the ambition of their policy goals.
As for the notion that Obama should be tied down by perceptions of what he thinks the country “can accept,” frankly this is even worse advice. As Galston notes, voters “have little confidence in government as an effective instrument of public purpose. Trust in government remains near an historic low and has not improved significantly since the beginning of Obama’s presidency.”
But the way to change that perception is not to nibble around the edges, but instead move forward a piece of legislation that changes the entire political equation for Democrats: something like passing a sweeping health care package. The negative perception that voters continue to have toward government is because, as Obama suggested during the campaign, they don’t see it being responsive to their needs.
Forget the polls for just a second. In November 2008, the electorate voted not only for change, but they voted to send someone to Washington who would change the tone, bring new ideas and get things done. Passing comprehensive health care reform is the best way I can think of to not only fulfill the promise of Obama’s campaign, but also expose the rigidity of Republican opposition. If Democrats are dealing with a down economy in 2010 they will likely pay a price at the polls, but the best response to bad economic news is evidence that Congress and the President have worked to fulfill their campaign promises. As I asked a few days ago at Politico: “Would Democrats prefer to go to the voters and say, ‘I shrunk the deficit’ or would they rather say, ‘I passed health care legislation that improves access and care for 50 million people — and, by the way, my opponent voted against it?”
I can already imagine the likely response to my confidence: 1993 and 1994. The political path I’m advocating, of course, bears striking similarities to President Clinton’s ambitious domestic policy agenda. The critical difference, however, is the lack of confidence voters have not only in the Republican Party, but for conservatism in general. In addition, there is simply no question that the electorate trusts Obama far more than it did Clinton. I understand, Galston’s pleas for caution and no one who lived through 1993 and 1994 would ever question the dangers of overreaching. But if ever there were a time for overreaching it would be right now.