The Failure of Obama's Conventional Wisdom

In 2008, supporters of Barack Obama subscribed to the view that his election would, not to put too fine a point on it, “change everything.” Maybe they were right.

For the last two years, the old ways of Washington have been crashing down like pillars of Mordor at the end of The Lord of the Rings.

Then-candidate Obama was himself fond of noting that the conventional wisdom—or “CW”—was that a black guy with a funny name could never be elected president. His chief opponent, he explained, wasn’t any candidate but “cynicism” itself. It was a clever bit of messaging, not least because it worked. Obama not only won, he captured such “impossible” states as Indiana and Virginia.

Coming into office during a wrenching financial crisis, the conventional wisdom was that the American people would rally around New Deal policies. At least that’s what liberal historians and political scientists said they should do.

The experts were wrong. While Obama had widespread support to fight the financial crisis, once it became clear he was using it to enact a New Deal–style agenda, everyone outside his core base started to flee. It didn’t help that the White House said from the outset that it wasn’t going to let the crisis “go to waste.”

That’s okay, explained the experts, Obama is such a masterful orator he will rally the public to his cause. To date, despite too many “big speeches” to count, I am at a loss to think of a single issue where Obama has successfully changed the minds of voters. He sounds good, but he can’t sell his agenda.

Indeed, at the top of that agenda was health-care “reform.” The entire Democratic party had convinced itself that Bill Clinton’s biggest mistake wasn’t in attempting a government takeover of health care, but in failing to cram it through. After all, the CW for generations has been that once the American people are given an entitlement they never want to let it go. That was the story of the New Deal and the Great Society, as well as George W. Bush’s prescription-drug benefit.

Armed with this conviction, the Democrats pushed “Obamacare” through on a partisan basis, without clear support from the public. It’s now been more than a year, and in defiance of what everyone “knew” would be true, it is still unpopular.

At the same time, rather than rally around bold new expansions in government as the CW said they should, independent voters broke wildly against Obama. They put a Republican in Ted Kennedy’s seat, which is not only contrary to conventional wisdom but almost in defiance of biblical prophecy. They swept Chris Christie into the governor’s mansion in New Jersey—a liberal state Obama had won by 14 points. And they elected a staunch social conservative governor in Virginia, which, according to the conventional wisdom, shouldn’t have happened because the state was turning blue.

Oh, and then there are the tea parties. According to the CW, organic, grassroots populist movements are supposed to be left-wing things, and they’re most certainly not supposed to demand less government. But that’s what happened. And they powered a political landslide in the 2010 elections, which, again, should have gone Obama’s way if the New Deal paradigm was in play.

It goes on and on. Public-sector unions have lost the public’s support. A massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t significantly dented the popularity of oil drilling (nor has the Japan calamity much affected attitudes on nuclear power—yet). A war in Libya hasn’t produced a rally-around-the-president effect. It’s done the opposite, with Obama’s poll numbers hitting at an all-time low this week.

So now, the Democrats are sure—absolutely sure—that a government shutdown stemming from a budget fight will play right into their hands. Why? Because that’s how it worked in 1995. Howard Dean said this week that if he were still running the Democratic National Committee, he’d be “quietly rooting for” a shutdown because “I know who’s going to get blamed—we’ve been down this road before.”

Really? It’s certainly true that the Republicans might lose the blame game over a government shutdown. And, personally, I’d like to see Republicans conclude this fight over the current half-year budget and instead launch the larger war over the fiscal future of our country.

But if I were a Democrat, never mind Barack Obama, I’d be awfully nervous about accepting any argument that boils down to “Well, that’s the way it always works.”

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Photo: BigStock/piksel

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