Winston: Obama, Democrats Misjudged Mandate

Posted September 29, 2010 at 4:48pm

“I won.”

Those were President Barack Obama’s pointed words to Republican Congressional leaders when they challenged his proposed stimulus package in a White House meeting held just three days after his swearing-in. As he was to do for the next 20 months, Obama ignored GOP concerns and went on to cram a nearly trillion-dollar stimulus package through Congress, promising unemployment would not go above 8 percent.

[IMGCAP(1)]Obama’s decision to move the stimulus bill without bipartisan support — followed in the months to come by health care reform, cap-and-trade and financial reform — was driven by a fundamental misreading of the 2008 election. Obama believed then, and apparently still believes, that the American people gave him a mandate to move the country and its policies to the left.

He couldn’t be more wrong, because the 2008 election revolved around personality not policy. Obama’s strategy wasn’t complicated: play to voter discontent by promising change but leave it to people to define that change themselves.

It worked — up to a point. Studiously avoiding policy specifics and showing empathy while discussing voter concerns was enough for Obama to win an election, but what he’s now discovering is that personality politics isn’t the same thing as a mandate for ideologically driven policies.

By choosing to win the election on the strength of his personality rather than his ideas, he failed to win the people’s endorsement of an agenda that included controversial proposals on health care, the environment and, most importantly, his plan to fix the economy. As a result, he has been unable to maintain a majority coalition, which has led to his inability to govern.

Many Democrats assumed the 2008 elections signaled an ideological shift to the left. The stimulus spending package, a throwback to Keynesian economics, was their opening move in that direction. Now, after 16 months of more than 9 percent unemployment, weak growth, rising deficits and endless stories of wasted stimulus dollars over this “recovery summer,” Obama’s economic policies are in disarray.

Clearly, the Obama administration misread voters. When they asked for change, they weren’t asking for a trillion-dollar spending lurch to the left. Despite Obama’s victory, media exit polls have consistently shown that the country remained ideologically where it has been for the past 25 years: center-right.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that voters have not embraced Democrats’ big-government spending solution to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Even when Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders were passing the stimulus package and Obama’s popularity was still high, a February 2009 CBS News survey found that by almost a 3-1 margin, people thought reducing taxes on business was a better solution to get the country out of the recession than increasing government spending. This was just three months after Obama’s “change” election.

Perhaps the most telling disconnect between Democratic leadership and the electorate is the rejection of Obama’s health care plan. As his plan moved down the legislative track, opposition to it increased, but Democrats simply ignored growing resistance to their big-government approach, believing support would come as people came to understand the bill.

Six months after passage, a majority of the Americans people oppose the overall bill. They don’t understand why Obama and Congressional Democrats seem intent on forcing an unacceptable approach to health care reform on them. Moreover, they don’t understand why Democrats have spent the past 20 months on issues other than job creation and economic growth.

Obama and Democratic leaders’ decision to spend much of the past year and a half on issues including health care, cap-and-trade and financial reform is a little like finding a house on fire and deciding to fix the crack in the foundation or a broken window instead of putting out the fire. The crack and the window are important, but they really don’t matter until the fire is put out.

Obama mistook his electoral victory as a mandate to govern from his ideological position. It was a costly error — one that Republicans must avoid. Unveiling their “A Pledge to America” last week went a long way toward assuring that any GOP victory in the November elections will be a mandate for their ideas, not simply a rejection of Obama and Congressional Democrats.

But that victory is not assured. People can remember 2006, when the Republicans’ strategy to keep the majority was to avoid a discussion of national issues and ideas, run local races and attack and outspend their opponents. Those were interesting campaign tactics that failed because, in the end, Republicans never gave voters a rationale for allowing them to govern.

An overwhelming majority of the electorate think Obama and Congressional Democrats are taking the country in the wrong direction. But when Nov. 2 rolls around, the more important question that will determine the outcome is whether voters think Republicans are able to govern.

Winning that argument will take more than attack ads. It will take ideas and solutions that address voters concerns. “A Pledge to America” does exactly that, and if Republicans are victorious a month from now, unlike Obama, they will have a policy-based victory and the mandate to govern that comes with it.

David Winston is a Republican pollster and president of the Winston Group.