How would you describe your political views? This is a question that the Gallup Organization and many other pollsters have asked Americans since the earliest days of public opinion polling in the 1930s. In one of question from 1937, 3% said their political views were radical, 40% liberal, and 37% conservative.
For the past decade in Gallup's data, around 20% have described themselves as liberals, a third as moderates, and around four in ten as conservative. In a recent Pew analysis, voters described themselves as slightly right of center. When asked about the Republican and Democratic parties, the average rating for the Democratic Party's ideology was farther to the left than the average rating for Republican Party's ideology was to the right..
Americans knew Barack Obama had a very ambitious agenda when he ran for president, but most Americans weren't overly worried that it would be too liberal. In November 2008, for example, 39% told Fox News/Opinion Dynamics interviewers that his positions on issues were too liberal, but a majority, 53%, described them as about right. A March 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll got similar results. Thirty-six percent said his positions were too liberal, and 58% about right. In January 2009, most people said he was listening more to moderate members of his party than to liberal ones.
But Americans' views have changed. Today most people believe the president is listening more to liberal members of his party. In the July 2010 Fox poll, 47% said his views were too liberal and 39% about right. In an August 2010 CNN poll, 46% said his administration was too liberal, and 39% about right. In a July Princeton Survey Research Associates/Newsweek poll, 36% said President Obama had governed more as a practical problem solver, but 44% said he had governed more as a political liberal.
The vast expansion of federal government activity in the past two years has changed people's view of the president. Although government grew under President George W. Bush, it has grown even more under President Obama. The cumulative impact of the bank and auto bailouts (begun under Bush), the stimulus, and the health care bill has soured Americans on the president's approach to governance.
Don't get me wrong. Americans want their government in Washington to do many things. But they also see big government as wasteful, intrusive, and just too darn expensive. Paradoxically perhaps Americans want their government to do less when economic conditions are bad. When they feel we and our families are doing well, they are more generous about what they want government to do. Right now they don't think they can afford any more government.
The voters' sour mood can be largely explained by the economy. Most polls show that Americans don't think we have hit bottom yet. But a good part of the sour mood can be explained by concerns that the president's ambitious agenda is too liberal. The "L" word is still a dirty word in politics.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.