"You woke the bears! Why did you do that?"
That's from one of my favorite scenes in "Anchorman." In the Oscar-robbed film, Ron Burgundy (played by Will Ferrell) loudly leaps into a bear pit to rescue his girlfriend and then falsely blames her for waking them up.
Watching President Obama these days reminds me of that scene.
In March 2010, liberal columnist Peter Beinart argued that, for decades, Democratic politicians treated America's innate conservatism like a slumbering bear: If you make no sudden moves and talk quietly, you can get a lot done. But if you wake the bear, as Democrats did in the late 1960s and early '70s, the ursine silent majority will punish you.
But Obama promised to change that. He was tired of the timid, almost apologetic talk. He was going to be an FDR, or at least a Reagan for liberalism. He was going to "fundamentally transform" the country. And to those who counseled that Democrats can't govern that way, Obama and his followers responded with shouts of "Yes, we can!"
You might think it was those shouts that woke the bear, but that's not what happened. After all, Obama enjoyed stunning popularity when he entered the Oval Office.
No, it wasn't words but deeds that roused the beast. The poorly crafted, deeply partisan stimulus was like a sharp stick to the bear's belly. But it was "Obamacare" that ended the hibernation.
Despite his deployment of every rhetorical weapon in the progressive arsenal, Obama could never make the thing popular. At town hall meetings, the bear growled and snorted, in a posture that the experienced psephological woodsman understands means "leave the bear alone." The Democratic response was to mock the grizzly. Nancy Pelosi even called the town hall protesters "un-American."
By July 2009, Gallup found Americans had attitudes that were "conspicuously incongruous with the results of the 2008 elections." The 2010 midterm elections showed just how incongruous.
Of the myriad miscalculations made by Obama, among the most fateful has to be his assumption that a repudiation of George W. Bush was synonymous with a repudiation of conservatism. By Election Day in 2008, Bush's approval rating was at 25 percent. You cannot get that low without losing a sizable slice of your base, particularly when self-described conservatives outnumber self-described liberals by roughly 2 to 1. It was their opposition to Bush's big-government conservatism that made them the feedstock of the "tea parties."