Public approval ratings of Barack Obama may be falling quickly right now--but his rating of the American public is probably falling even faster.
The president won a decisive victory in November promising to rescue the ailing American economy through public spending, and to reform the health system with government at the core. He has certainly succeeded in spending money. The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that the national debt will balloon to $17.1 trillion by 2019. And he is trying valiantly to deliver on his second promise. Between keeping his promises and the signs of an improving economy, Mr. Obama has every reason to think his approval ratings should be flying high.
Instead, Gallup reports that disapproval of the president's economic policies has grown to 49% in July from 30% in February. Even among the president's core supporters, young people in the 18-29 age group, his overall approval has dropped 11 points since January.
Dissatisfaction is spreading into open protest as members of Congress try to explain the president's policies to the public. Angry voters have engaged in high-profile confrontations in town-hall meetings around the country over a proposed health-care overhaul that protesters complain is unaffordable, socialistic, incomprehensible, and which their representatives have not even read.
Many on the left attribute the public's growing disapproval to right-wing scheming. An op-ed in USA Today on Aug. 10 by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the town-hall protests are part of an "ugly campaign" and are "un-American." A few days earlier, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid charged "sabotage."
Blaming a cabal of conspirators--a time-honored technique for leaders on the wrong side of public opinion--is paranoid and self-defeating. More importantly, it betrays a tin ear to the culture of most Americans--an independent, optimistic culture that is mistrustful of government nannying and intolerant of policies that mortgage our future.
Consider the evidence. Despite the vote in November, it is clear that when Americans are not in an abject panic, we dislike government fiscal promiscuity. The president's sinking approval ratings are due precisely to his administration's free-spending ways. In a July 2009 Gallup poll, the No. 1 reason for disapproval of the president's economic policies was, literally, "spending too much." In second place was the worry that the president is "leading the nation toward socialism" through government takeovers and bailouts.
What exactly is our problem with government spending? It is not just that we think it is wasteful and ineffective (although most recognize this to be true). Americans actually think the government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life.
In January 2009, the Pew Research Center asked about 2,000 Americans, "Do you think the government does more to help or more to hurt people trying to move up the economic ladder?" Amid the most frightening economic crisis in decades, more Americans still said the government would hurt than the number who thought it would help (50% versus 39%). Independent surveys from roughly the same period found that only one in five Americans believed he or she could trust the government.
Citizens will put up with a lot--but not with anyone who imperils our future. There is practically nothing that lowers American happiness more than taking away our faith in a better tomorrow. Data from the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey in 2004 show that, even if two people have the same income, education, race, sex, family status and political views, a lack of optimism about the future lowers the likelihood by nearly 50% of one saying he or she is "very happy" about the present.
Most Americans see their best future in the free enterprise system when (as a March 2009 Pew Research Center poll found) 70% of respondents agree that, "people are better off in a free market economy, even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time." There is no evidence that more than a minority of Americans accept the idea that a $17 trillion national debt, greater reliance on government for jobs and health, and hyper-progressive taxation offer the hope they deserve for themselves and their children.
The administration and Congress can deny these truths with charges of un-Americanism and implausible conspiracy theories about the current citizen demonstrations. But opinion polls deliver an honest expression of unhappiness over the direction our nation is taking. Woe betide the leaders who ignore this fact.
Arthur C. Brooks is the president of AEI.