Talk about tone deaf.
A week ago, President Obama traveled to Kansas, to deliver his updating of Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech. His key word was “fairness,” and his message was that only the big government could deliver it. “Greed” was his term for anyone who has done well in the private economy. But, as a poll released just yesterday found, this frame – big government good; private economy bad — is exactly the opposite of what the American people and nearly a majority of the president’s own party currently believe.
Yesterday the Gallup organization reported that American concern about excessively large government had soared to an all time record high. Sixty-four percent of respondents to a national sampling told Gallup that big government “will be the biggest threat to the country in the future,” as opposed to big business (26 percent) or big labor (with its diminished heft everywhere but in government employment an unsurprising 8 percent).
Gallup has been asking this question since the mid-60s. Only once before has concern about government got to this level. That was the 2000-2001 period, when despite a strong economy and global peace, the American people turned away from New Democrat incumbent Bill Clinton’s heir – the old-line liberal, big government advocate Al Gore — for the (by comparison) limited government appeal of George W. Bush. Gore’s slogan could just as well be Mr. Obama’s, “The People versus the Powerful.” And it helped propel the vice president from what should have been a slam-dunk sure win into a near tie in the popular vote and a loss in the Electoral College.
But from the White House’s point of view, that’s not the poll’s worst news.
Predictably, Republicans feel most wary of big government, with 82 percent finding it the major threat. And almost as predictably, Independents answered very much like GOP voters, with 64 percent fingering big government, too. This finding follows an established pattern. In their attitudes and preferences, Independents have long looked very much like Republicans but without quite as much clarity and fervor on issues and, of course, without the institutional loyalty to a party.
What is new now is that 48 percent of Democrats also now name big government as the greatest threat. When their nemesis George W. Bush occupied the White House, Democrats – who otherwise favored an expansive federal establishment – were similarly fearful of government. But once their own man was inaugurated, they reverted to form and concern about excessive government fell (32 percent in 2009 v 52 percent who named big business as the prime worry). Now, a near majority again puts fear of government first.
Why has the president’s golden oldie Democratic Party class warfare theme turned out to be so out of touch?
Just as did Vice President Gore in 2000, the president and his team fundamentally misunderstand how America has changed over the past three decades. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, the nation and the economy were not that different from when Dwight Eisenhower first took the oath of office nearly three decades before. In the 1980s as in the early ‘50s, it made sense to talk about American employment and opportunity in big-government-business-labor terms.
But Reagan himself had picked up that a new – or at least long dormant — force was stirring — the now-familiar force of entrepreneurship. Reagan was the first major political figure to cite MIT professor David Birch’s landmark study of job creation. Birch had mined previously untapped data sources and, to the astonishment of academics of many stripes, found that a majority of the net new jobs in the United States in the 1970s had been created by small companies. This was a long way from the conventional wisdom of the time, reflected in the writing of the far more famous John Kenneth Galbraith — that in the private economy only big companies really mattered.
We are now three decades later. According the Kauffman Foundation, which is dedicated to the study of entrepreneurship, ALL of the net new jobs in the United States since 1980 came in companies – note, companies, not government – that were five years old or less.
In political terms, this new fact means that most Americans now work as part of — or in close proximity to — entrepreneurial teams. They live in an economy that is fundamentally different than the one of which TR spoke in 1910 (the year he delivered his “New Nationalism” address) or that FDR (Mr. Obama’s other avatar) confronted in 1932 or even that JFK talked about in 1960. In the most immediate and personal sense, our view of the economic world is entirely different than that of our parents and grandparents. Appeals born of those other times do not speak to our experience today.
The tragedy of Barack Obama is that under the banner of “progressive,” he is the most backward looking political leader in memory. His policies have been out of another time. His political strategy is just as antiquated.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.