As a result, Americans cherish their independence. One interesting aspect of the spontaneous tea party movement is the constant invocation of the Founders and the prominence of the "Don't Tread on Me" flag. Eighteenth-century Americans declared their independence, 19th-century Americans fought so that blacks could be independent, too, and 20th-century Americans sacrificed to extend the blessings of independence to the wider world.
Americans tend to see themselves as independent doers, not dependent victims. They don't like to be told, especially by those with fancy academic pedigrees, that they are helpless and in need of government aid. That's why the politically popular American big government programs -- Social Security, Medicare, veterans' benefits, student loans -- all make a connection between effort and reward. You get a benefit because you've worked for it.
In contrast, Americans have loathed and rejected big government programs with no nexus between effort and reward. Welfare was begun in the 1930s to help widows with children, whose plight, as Russell Baker's memoir "Growing Up" showed, was often dismal. But when welfare became a mass program to subsidize mothers who didn't work and to excuse fathers from responsibility for their actions, it became wildly unpopular.
Bill Clinton recognized this when he signed welfare reform in 1996. Clinton worked his way up in Arkansas, a state with a highly unequal income distribution, with a few very rich families -- the Waltons, Tysons, Stephenses -- and many people with modest incomes. But polling shows that the Democrats' health care plans are overwhelmingly unpopular in Arkansas, even more than nationally.
Barack Obama, who has chosen to live his adult life in university precincts, sees Arkansans and Americans generally as victims who need his help, people who would be better off dependent on government than on their own. Most American voters don't want to see themselves that way and resent this condescension.
Obama hopes to embarrass Republicans at his Thursday summit and persuade Democrats to change the legislative rules and jam through a health care bill. Tactically, he's not likely to succeed. But his greater problem, on health care and other issues, is strategic. Most Americans don't share his view that they are victims, in need of protection and supervision by "the educated class."
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