Barack Obama came into office championing change, and he apparently assumed that if Americans voted for him, it was because they wanted the future to be different from what went before. Actually, what they wanted was a future much like the not-so-distant past -- before the financial crisis, before the recession, before the Iraq war, before the most unpopular president since the invention of polling.
If voters had wanted a sharp ideological shift, they could have voted for Democratic candidates more identified with Great Society-style government -- Hillary Clinton, John Edwards or even Dennis Kucinich. Obama got the early endorsement of Ted Kennedy, but like Bill Clinton before him, he won because he distanced himself from Kennedy-style liberalism. His promise of change was eloquent enough to motivate the left wing of his party but vague enough to make him acceptable to people in the middle.
Among independents, Obama beat John McCain by an 8-point margin. The reason John Kerry lost and Obama won, as Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen has noted, was not liberal voters: They voted for both in the same proportion. The difference was that while Kerry had a 9-point edge over his Republican opponent among moderates, Obama carried them by 21 points. Obama also did significantly better among conservatives than Kerry.
After the election, then-chairman of the Republican National Committee Mike Duncan noted that the Democratic nominee supported offshore oil drilling, merit pay for teachers, a tax cut for 95 percent of Americans, more troops in Afghanistan and an end to wasteful federal earmarks. "Put simply," he said, "Barack Obama just ran the most successful moderate Republican presidential campaign since Dwight Eisenhower."
In the weeks after the election, amid talk of a second Great Depression, Obama was often compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt. But by the time FDR took office, the economy had been in free fall for more than three years, creating mass desperation.
The recession that began in December 2007, though scary, never remotely resembled the Great Depression. During last year's campaign, the situation was more like 1952 than 1932, with the electorate sick of war and tired of a party that had dominated the presidency for too long. When Americans elected Eisenhower, they weren't inviting a radical turnabout -- just some modest improvements in the status quo. Likewise with Obama.