Steve Chapman

But the 44th president apparently thought he had a mandate for the expansion of federal power and responsibility, which he has used on everything from bailing out automakers to showering the economy with stimulus dollars to trying to overhaul health insurance. He and his allies have therefore been surprised to face a surge of angry opposition, including some based on wild flights of paranoia.

What they forgot is that the surest way to mobilize American political opposition, irrational as well as rational, is to enlarge the government's role in our lives. Liberals and conservatives disagree on when to distrust the government, but they share the same basic suspicion.

George W. Bush managed to infuriate the Left in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by pushing through the Patriot Act, engaging in warrantless eavesdropping on Americans and commandeering library records. Obama managed to provoke the Right by spending hundreds of billions of dollars and proposing that the government exert more control over medical care.

That conflicts with our persistent strain of anti-government feeling. Obama's election marked no sudden ebbing of this sentiment: Last December, 52 percent of Americans felt the government was "doing too much that should be left to individuals and business" -- up from 41 percent in October 2001.

In 1998, 61 percent of Americans said they had confidence in the federal government's ability to handle domestic problems. On the eve of the 2008 election, only 48 percent felt that way.

Even amid the worst recession in decades, most have not changed their minds. Today, more than half say the president's policies go too far in expanding the federal government, and his popularity has declined as a result.

One symbol used by the colonies in their revolt against the king of England was a coiled rattlesnake above the slogan: "Don't tread on me." Obama may be learning that, even for elected leaders, it's still good advice.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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