An interesting paradox. Last year, America elected a president who, in attitudes and policies, is closer to the elites of Western Europe than any of his predecessors. Yet in the nine months that he has been in office, ordinary Americans have been moving away from those attitudes and policies and have increasingly embraced positions that over the years have made Americans distinctive from those in other advanced Western democracies.
Barack Obama's European tendencies aren't not in doubt. His policies on government spending, taxation, health care and carbon emissions would all tend to bring America in line with European norms, to a far greater degree than any other president of the last 40 years and probably any president ever.
And what of America's special place in the world? "I believe in American exceptionalism," Obama said on one of his trips to Europe, "just as I suspect that Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." In other words, not at all. One cannot imagine Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Eisenhower or Reagan uttering such sentiments.
Obama told European Union parliamentarians in Strasbourg that he hailed "your dynamic union," but most Americans seem to have some vestigial knowledge that over the last 60 years, America has been more dynamic -- economically, culturally, politically, militarily -- than our friends across the Atlantic. And when presented with public policies that would make us more like Europe, Americans have tended to recoil.
Examples abound. Despite the recession, by about 50 to 40 percent Americans continue to prefer smaller government with fewer services to larger government with more services (June ABC/Washington Post and CBS/New York Times polls). Some 80 percent want the government to sell its interest in General Motors (July Rasmussen poll).
A 58 to 35 percent majority say keep the budget deficit down even if it takes longer for the economy to recover (NBC/WSJ June). A 53 to 33 percent majority oppose more government regulation of the finance sector (Rasmussen October).
As Europeanizing policies receive more attention, they become less popular. June's 50 to 45 percent approval of Democratic health care proposals morphs to a similar margin of disapproval in October (Rasmussen). And satisfaction with one's own health care arrangements rises from 29 percent in 2008 and 35 percent in May 2009 to 48 percent in August (Rasmussen again).