Presidents tend to get upset when they discover that their agenda isn’t a carbon copy of the agenda of the voters who put them in office.
Some presidents adjust to reality; others seem willing to resort to almost any means to get what they want. When the public rejected his early big-government schemes, Clinton simply announced that “the era of big government is over” and went on. Nixon, on the other hand, decided that if he couldn’t accomplish what he wanted with public support, he’d work in the dark.
The significance of that statement hinges heavily on how the president defines “success.” If one identifies success with popularity, it would follow that if his first term could be counted as “successful,” a president would be rewarded with a second. If he were using “success” in that way, the statement makes little sense; it only makes sense, in fact, if he equates the word with “consequential” and was saying that he would be willing to risk the voters’ wrath to advance his agenda rather than theirs.
Most presidents want it both ways. They want to advance their own agenda without risking personal popularity or the future of their party, but each has to weigh whether to follow the polls or risk everything for policies he truly believes to be in the best interests of the country. This led President George W. Bush, who was (rightly or wrongly) convinced that confronting a terrorist enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan was essential, to pursue the war on terror aggressively even in the face of developing public opposition.
Democrats trashed Bush and his allies in Congress for their bullheadedness and failure to bend to growing public opposition. The 2006 and 2008 elections turned in part on this developing opposition to his policies, but even more importantly on the public’s growing sense that its president was out of touch with Americans and unwilling to listen seriously to a concerned public.
As this fall’s elections approach, the shoe is on the other foot. The Republicans are blaming Obama for being out of touch and ignoring the wishes of a democratic electorate. There is little doubt that Obama and his strongest partisans feel as threatened by public anger as Bush (or any of his predecessors) ever was; after all, they are pursuing policies that one has to assume they are convinced will be good for all, or at least some of us, in the long run.
Their problem, however, is even greater than that Bush faced. Americans in 2006 were nervous about the wisdom of Bush’s policies and disagreed with them because they didn’t seem to be working, but didn’t see those policies as a threat to the underlying strength of the republic. Their opposition to Obama’s policies is deeper emotionally and intellectually as they question not just the political wisdom, but the very direction he is trying to take the country. Indeed, the public opposes much of what Obama seeks to do not because of a fear that he won’t succeed, but because of a fear that he will. This tidal wave of popular opposition could change the political landscape for decades.
As Democrats passed their healthcare legislation over the public’s protests, the president himself dismissed critics of his methods by arguing that people don’t really care about “process” anyway. Voters in the know are also learning that maybe even the elections this fall won’t matter because Democrats plan to use a “lame-duck” Congress to force through legislation opposed by vast majorities of voters.
The president is already using the executive branch’s regulatory power to advance much of his global warming agenda and is apparently seeking ways to short-circuit the need to win congressional or popular approval for other parts of his agenda. Thus, the president’s minions are seriously discussing similar measures to reshape U.S. immigration policy, including adoption of amnesty for illegals, without submitting such “reforms” to Congress for a vote.
Politicians who show complete disdain for the beliefs and attitudes of the voters shouldn’t complain when those voters react against them at the polls.
Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.