As the fifth year of the Obama presidency draws to a close, it may be time to examine the unspoken but powerful assumption behind the policies of the president and his party.
That is the assumption that in times of economic distress Americans would be, more than usual, supportive of or amenable to Big Government programs.
The assumption was widely shared, and not just by Democrats. And it has pretty well been disproven, insofar as any abstract proposition can be disproven, in the five years of the Obama presidency.
The Obama assumption has its origins in the 1930s, in the apparent political and economic success of New Deal programs, and it was propagated with great success by the New Deal historians in books that were bestsellers in the years after World War II.
It is possible to draw different lessons from the 1930s, as I did in my book "Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan." In this view, Franklin Roosevelt's initial political success was due to the programs of the so-called First New Deal, which stopped the dizzying downward deflationary spiral in 1933 and 1934.
In contrast, the economic redistribution programs of the so-called Second New Deal produced labor unrest, a sharp recession and a sluggish recovery, and New Deal Democrats lost their congressional majorities. Roosevelt was re-elected in 1940 only because he was a seasoned leader in a world at war.
That's not how the Obama Democrats read history, however. Once in office with massive majorities, they wasted no time in passing an $800 billion stimulus package.
They were confident that the stimulus would prove popular with voters. They must have been puzzled when it didn't -- and when the idea of bailing out underwater homeowners generated not demands for government aid, but the formation of the Tea Party movement.
The Obama Democrats may have been puzzled as well when initial poll numbers showed majorities against Obamacare. In a time of economic distress, weren't Americans interested in getting free stuff?
This assumption ignored the fact that most Americans were not displeased with their current health insurance arrangements. And it overestimated the amount of sympathy that could be generated for the relatively few who couldn't get insurance because of pre-existing conditions or unanticipated accidents.
In retrospect, it's also plain that the Obama Democrats underestimated the difficulty of creating a workable framework for governance of the health care sector, which makes up one-sixth of the economy.
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