A Washington Post/ABC poll today is showing that 43 percent of respondents now view Obama as an "old-style tax-and-spend Democrat" - up from 32 percent in a previous edition. Also, the poll found that nearly a quarter of moderate and conservative Democrats (22 percent) now see Obama as an "old-style tax-and-spend Democrat" - up from 4 percent in that combined category in March, the Washington Post reported.
It's easy to see why Obama is perceived this way. From the minute he took office, he's presided over unprecedented "government spending," but much of it seemed necessary to aid the economy, which was spiraling downward toward a Depression-scale low point when Obama took office in late January. Obama was forced to approve bailouts of the banking and auto industries. (and use public funds to save firms like AIG) and to fight for passage of a huge government stimulus package. Then, instead of retreating into a more conservative approach due to the sagging economy, Obama launched his push for an overhaul of the health care system that will cost billions, and, potentially cause the federal deficit to soar.
So, some Republicans, in a typically distorted, negative way, have made it their mission to "brand" Obama as a "big spender" -- even though a large chunk of spending was necessary and recommended by economists from across the spectrum. (I think other criticisms of the Obama administration's handling of economic matters have been legitimate - such its "loosey-goosey" collaboration with Congress in developing the stimulus package). I think some of this "branding" of Obama has succeeded - perhaps partly by accident, but, in any event, one large reason is that Obama and his surrogates have failed to offer arguments to counter this image problem.
However, do Obama's actions so far make him a reckless deficit spender, OR, is he taking significant steps he promised on the campaign - that he believes, in the long run, will improve our economy?
Many Americans support Obama's intentions, but are worried about the costs - and, I think the Obama team should start acknowledging these worries a lot more. For the past two or three months, Obama and his people have appeared a bit too casual about the spending part of the health care reform bill, for instance, and, likewise, about the slow, delayed impact of the expensive stimulus package.
I think President Obama should begin to insert phrases into his public remarks about addressing costs to show people that: a) he cares about preventing deficits; b) with the exception of the stimulus package and bailouts to save the economy, he does not support spending huge amounts of public money without clear targets and goals; and, c) he plans to follow through on plans to cut waste from parts of the government and take steps to make it run more efficiently.
Obama should forcefully convey his concern about controlling costs in his health care reform proposal and overall spending during his prime-time press conference on July 22.
I've learned, through the years, just how deep-seated and chronic the taxpayers' anti-government sentiment can be in this often-reactionary country of ours. Many Americans not only dislike government, but strongly prefer that government stay out of matters it can avoid meddling in. Ronald Reagan capitalized on this anti-government impulse for years.
In the past 30 years, we've had only two Democratic presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) and there are reasons for that. First, it's not a coincidence that Carter and Clinton were both from the south and that both ran as "centrists" rather than as "liberals." Secondly, once in office, both were held to a high standard for not allowing government spending to become excessive. (or, too "liberal") One of Clinton's strengths, to the surprise of many, ended up being his capacity to keep the federal deficit down.
Obama, who was probably never as "liberal" as his record suggested, nevertheless came into office with a more left-leaning image and voting record. Thus, if his actions in this first year bring him an image of a "big government spender" it may be very hard for him to shake. In fact, that image could saddle him and hurt him politically so much that it threatens his re-election.
So, as I observe Obama dealing with the health care reform issue, I'm thinking ahead to the rest of his term. I want him to succeed as President. To do that, he will have to demonstrate he is not a knee-jerk supporter of all government spending. (I'm not concerned about this, but, I think a segment of the public is).
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama portrayed himself as a post-partisan President with a "different" approach. He stressed he'd find ways to make goverment work better and try to reduce inefficiency. He implied he didn't care about political parties and politics as much as finding solutions.
The American people, in concept, would probably always support that logic. However, if Obama projects an image that suggests he sees the government as the author and keeper of most solutions - and that a never-ending increase in government spending is simply a necessary part of the process, he'll run into big trouble earlier than he thinks.
There has never been a President who has presided so quickly over such a gigantic amount of spending by the federal government. Further, this President had to approve of the federal government intervening in the auto industry with its bailout of General Motors and with the banking industry. This kind of government intrusion makes many Americans uneasy.
So, what Obama must realize and show that he realizes - is that from now on, he'll be careful and transparent as he announced plans for federal iniatives. He must show that he, too, not only wants to reduce the deficit, but has a specific game plan for doing so. And, if and when, his Administration unveils another stimulus package, Obama team must do a far better job at displaying accountability.
Obama has enormous potential to get some good things done in his first term. I'd hate to see the conventional world of Washington politics - with reactionaries leading the way - succeed in labeling him a "big-spending, big government liberal" who's like all the rest. (Personally, I don't mind the label that much, but, I think American Presidents are more likely to succeed if they at least appear to not have an automatic impulse to support all government spending).
If Obama wants to be truly different, he'll have to keep resisting others' attempts to mis-label him - and keep proving, through his actions, that he is, in fact, an independent, strong post-partisan leader.