In trying to understand what is happening in the nation and world, we all employ narratives -- story lines that indicate where things are going and what is likely to happen next. We can check the validity of these narratives by observing whether events move in the indicated direction. If so, the narrative is confirmed. But if things seem to be moving in an entirely different direction, it's time to discard the narrative and look for another.
When Barack Obama took office, most Americans and certainly most of the press had a narrative in mind. Call it Narrative A. The financial crisis and the ensuing deep recession had removed the blinkers from voters' eyes and moved Americans away from reliance on markets and toward reliance on government.
The new president's call for hope and change would be followed by enactment of big government policies -- a big-spending stimulus package, government-led health care reform, restrictions on carbon emissions and the effective abolition of the secret ballot in unionization elections. The new president's powers of persuasion would sweep Republicans along and make for bipartisan change.
It certainly seemed plausible. New Deal historians had taught us that economic collapse increases support for big government. Opponents of the Obama program seemed incoherent and demoralized.
But Narrative A looks increasingly shaky. The unions' anti-secret ballot bill is going nowhere, and neither, it seems, is carbon emissions legislation. The stimulus package is widely regarded as a failure, and the Democrats' various health care bills are not winning majorities in polls. If anything, Americans are more leery of big government than they were a few years ago.
Moreover, the balance of enthusiasm has shifted. The tea parties and town halls have shown that millions of Americans are strongly opposed to big government measures. The Obama e-mail lists that brought in so much money and so many volunteers in 2008 now seem unable to get a few dozen people to a rally, and Democratic fundraising is alarmingly low for a party in power.
So it may be time to advance a Narrative B. It goes something like this. George W. Bush's inability to produce progress in Baghdad and New Orleans, along with floundering by congressional Republicans, led voters to give Democrats majorities in Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008. But the huge flow of dollars designed to staunch the financial crisis (TARP), finance bailouts and fund the stimulus package raised fears that government would crowd out private-sector growth.