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A buzz-generating Saturday Night Live skit mocked Pres. Barack Obama for not yet having accomplished anything. Not fair. Obama has been on a roll.
In nine months, he has breathed life into the Republican party, boosted pro-lifers, tarnished the reputation of regulation, bolstered traditional values, increased the public’s desire for immigration restriction, and shifted independent voters rightward. If only RNC chairman Michael Steele were so deadly effective.
No, Obama hasn’t, as once promised, turned back the oceans. Maybe if he gets a second term. Nonetheless, revivifying conservatism almost before books announcing its death could be published qualifies as a feat almost as miraculous.
The 19th-century author Nathaniel Hawthorne warned of the perverse effects of grand schemes: “We miss the good we sought, and do the good we little cared for.” For Obama, proving that we live in a center-right country presumably isn’t a “good” at all, but he’s done it with a finality that the late sociologist Seymour Lipset — a student of America’s cussedly right-leaning attitudes — might envy.
Obama’s liberal grandiosity has reminded people why they tend to be conservative, something they wanted to forget during the last four years of the Bush administration. Gallup’s surveys in recent months are a long catalog of the Obama snap-back.
Fifty-three percent of Americans want government to promote traditional values — “a return to the prevailing view from 1993 through 2004.” Half of Americans want less immigration — “a return to the attitudes that prevailed in the first few years after 9/11.” Forty percent of Americans describe themselves as conservative — “a level last seen in 2004.” Fifty-one percent of Americans call themselves pro-life — “a significant shift from a year ago.”
It all explains the Obama administration’s rush to push sweeping legislation. The fall from grace of George W. Bush, coupled with the financial crisis, created a golden hour for American liberalism. The public’s attitudes shifted left, and anything — a New New Deal! a Greater Great Society! — seemed possible. Now, public opinion is returning to its natural state, and the Democrats are left in a race against the clock.
They want to pass, by roughly yesterday, a health-care program that won’t take effect until 2013. The fact that the program is unpopular (53 percent oppose it, and 33 support it, according to the latest Fox News poll) only makes its swift passage more imperative. Hurry, before the window closes entirely.
The spectacle of a president elected partly on his cool, his seeming moderation, and his post-partisanship jamming as much of an ideological agenda through as quickly as possible is not pleasing to the political independents enticed by all those qualities last year. More independents say they lean Republican than Democratic in a recent Gallup survey, narrowing the GOP’s gap in party ID to the closest it’s been since 2005.
In a feat that would be beyond Alan Greenspan and an army of Atlas Shrugged–touting libertarians, Obama and the Democrats have even managed to snap back attitudes toward regulation. In the wake of the financial crisis, a Michael Moore documentary trashing capitalism would have seemed superfluous. Why bother, when so many bankers did the trashing themselves? But TARP, the auto bailouts, and the $787 billion stimulus have soured people on government more.
According to Gallup, 57 percent of Americans say government is trying to do too many things best left to the private sector. More Americans (45 percent) say there is too much business regulation rather than too little (24 percent). It’s the worst showing for regulation ever in a Gallup survey. “However, a March 1981 Los Angeles Times poll using this question wording recorded a 54 percent ‘too much’ level,” Gallup explains. “This was just after Ronald Reagan took office, and may have reflected Reagan’s emphasis during the 1980 presidential campaign on the need to reduce government involvement in American society.”
When Obama suggested he wanted to be another Reagan, surely this wasn’t what he had in mind. But for now, he’s the Right’s best community organizer.