Democratic Presidents’ Base Problem

Kevin Drum is amazed by the swiftness with which some on the left have come to view Barack Obama as the enemy:

The frustration on the left with Obama — and with healthcare reform specifically — was almost inevitable. During the campaign, a lot of people chose to see in him what they wanted to see, pushing to the back of their minds not just the obvious signs that Obama has always been a cautious, practical politician, but also the obvious compromises and pressures that are forced onto any president. It was a recipe for disappointment. The striking thing to me, though, is how fast the left has turned on him. Conservatives gave Bush five or six years before they really turned on him, and even then they revolted more against the Republican establishment than against Bush himself. But the left? It took about ten months. And the depth of the revolt against Obama has been striking too. As near as I can tell, there’s a small but significant minority who are so enraged that they’d be perfectly happy to see his presidency destroyed as a kind of warning to future Democrats. It’s extraordinarily self-destructive behavior — and typically liberal, unfortunately. Just ask LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. And then ask them whether liberal revolt, in the end, strengthened liberalism or conservatism.

I think that this is one of the very rare instances when the famous ideological self-identification numbers are actually important:

Political Ideology: Annual Trends, 1992-2009 1

This chart is often used to support claims that I don’t think it really does support. But the chart does tell us something important about how people look at themselves. In particular, it tells us that a lot of people look at themselves as conservatives. So a president who says “I look at myself as a conservative, and you should look at me that way too” will still need to do some outreach to build a majority, but he’s working from a strong base. By contrast, a president who says “I look at myself as a liberal, and you should look at me that way too” is going to put himself in some pretty serious trouble.

Consequently, neither Barack Obama nor Bill Clinton nor Jimmy Carter nor LBJ self-identified in this way.

Politics, however, has a large tribal element. People like the people who are “on their side” and want to support politicians who are on their side. Not all Republican presidents do signal to conservatives that they are on the side of conservatives—George HW Bush didn’t, for example—but Ronald Reagan and George W Bush did. This is harder for Democratic presidents to do and they generally don’t do it. In particular, Barack Obama doesn’t do much of it. Nobody governs in an ideologically pure way, and every president who wants to sign bills has to make compromises with congressional squishes. But Reagan and Bush always identified with their bases and thus were forgiven a lot of compromises with congressional squishes. Bush senior didn’t—and Clinton didn’t, and Obama doesn’t—so they are forgiven much less.