Is Obama losing popularity because he's too liberal?

Why has President Obama’s popularity slid over the last few months? One common explanation is that he’s governed in too liberal a fashion--too much big government, too fast. David Brooks makes this case in today’s New York Times. “By force of circumstances and by design, the president has promoted one policy after another that increases spending and centralizes power in Washington,” he writes. “The result is the Obama slide, the most important feature of the current moment.”

Is Obama really sliding because of his liberal policies? If so, then you might expect to see governors doing better--after all, they’re cutting spending. But governors of both parties have seen their approval ratings fall as well. Tim Pawlenty is unpopular. Arnold Schwarzenegger is really unpopular. Overseas, Gordon Brown is unpopular. The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party lost control of a government it’s run for more than 50 years. 

So one possibility is that all these elected officials, at home or abroad, have expanded government too much or committed some analogous sin. The alternate possibility is that the world economic slump is dragging down all their popularity. I’m going with explanation number two.

This, however, doesn’t settle the question entirely. Brooks is clearly wrong to blame Obama’s decline on his big government ways. But, even if the economy accounts for the vast bulk of Obama’s decline, might Obama be more popular if he had governed closer to the center? In other words, is Brooks entirely wrong, or merely almost entirely wrong?

That’s much more of a guess. Obama has indeed supported numerous government interventions. Would he be more popular if he hadn’t? Let’s list the major ones. He supported extending the federal bailout of the financial sector. He signed rather than veto the appropriations bill from the previous year. He signed economic stimulus legislation and a bailout of the auto companies.

Now imagine he had done none of these things. If he hadn’t helped bail out the banks, the economy might still be in free-fall. If he hadn’t gotten a stimulus, most economists believe, the economy would be in worse shape. If he hadn’t bailed out the auto companies, hundreds of thousands more people in the Midwest would be jobless. He could have vetoed last year’s appropriations bill, but that would have started a fight with Congress, delayed his entire agenda by forcing the House and Senate to go back to the drawing board, and froze federal spending at a time when more spending (on anything) was desperately needed.

It’s true that, at the cost of allowing severe economic damage, Obama would have gained more of a reputation as a centrist by scaling back or abandoning these parts of his agenda. On the other hand, he probably would have had George H. W. Bush’s problem--appearing to have no serious agenda at a time when the country faced serious economic hardship.

Brooks’ prescription is as common as his diagnosis: He says Obama must scale back his plans and move to the center. Brooks is extremely vague about this point. He says that Obama should not use the reconciliation process in the Senate to pass health care reform, nor should he “balloon” the national debt (though Brooks does not mention that none of the health care plans in either chamber would do so).

Brooks does not mention another contributing factor in Obama’s poll decline: the long languishing status of his health care reform. Alongside his argument that Obama should move to the center in some unspecified way, Brooks writes, oddly:

Voters often have only a fuzzy sense of what each individual proposal actually does, but more and more have a growing conviction that if the president is proposing it, it must involve big spending, big government and a fundamental departure from the traditional American approach.

Why do I say oddly? Because he’s severely undermining his own case here. Republicans are going to attack anything Obama and the Democrats propose as big government. As Brooks says, voters are not going to follow the details, and in fact they’re going to be pretty highly misinformed. People make up their minds based on crude heuristics. If moderate Democrats are constantly hedging on the health care plan and suggesting they prefer a more moderate alternative, the public will conclude that Obama’s health care plan is too liberal.

Moreover, in lieu of educating the public about the health care plan, the press is dominated by accounts of political maneuvering. This, too, contributes to Obama’s declining popularity. The legislative sausage making process never makes anybody look good.

The widespread conclusion that Obama is losing popularity because he’s too liberal, and would regain popularity if he moves to the center, is totally unpersuasive. Most of Obama’s popularity hinges on the state of the economy, and most of what the administration can do to affect that, it’s already done (or not done). The rest depends on ending the long slow bleed of legislative wrangling and just passing a health care bill.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.