The prevailing narrative about our current political moment goes something like this:
Obama took office facing some large challenges. Then he overreached, by doing all kinds of big-governmenty things. This provoked a backlash, and now we're fighting over it.
We see the latest version of this narrative in today's David Brooks column, one of surpassing more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger Brooksness. As a moderate, Brooks is deeply saddened by all the arguing that's going on. "Just as America was leaving the culture war and the war war, the Democrats thrust it back into the government war, only this time nastier and with higher stakes," he laments.
The problem with this narrative is that it assumes that if Obama had taken some other course of action, the Tea Partiers would never have gotten so mad, and we would be having a much more civil discussion. But that's just absurd.
Let me offer just one piece of information. The latest poll from Brooks' own paper, one that included some extended analysis of people sympathetic to the Tea Party movement, included this question: "So far, do you think the Obama administration has increased taxes for most Americans, decreased taxes for most Americans, or have they kept taxes the same for most Americans?" There is a factual answer to this question: the administration has decreased taxes for most Americans. The stimulus bill included tax cuts for 98 percent of working families. The only tax increase that has actually taken effect since Obama took office was a small increase in the federal cigarette tax. The health-care reform does include tax increases on the wealthy -- but they are a small percentage of the population, and those increases don't take effect for a couple of years.
So how many people think Obama has raised taxes on most Americans? Thirty-four percent. Among those who say they support the Tea Party, it's 64 percent. Only 10 percent of the public, and only 2 percent of Tea Party supporters, gives the correct answer, that Obama has cut taxes for most Americans.
What does this tell us? That what the administration actually does has virtually no impact on the beliefs of the people driving our current political conflict. There was no course of action Obama could have pursued that would have made them more favorably inclined toward him. They will believe what they want to believe. If they don't like taxes, they'll assume Obama raised their taxes. Brooks, and people like him, can certainly argue that the steps the administration have taken constitute an unacceptably large expansion of government. I think they're wrong, but there's a case they could make. What they can't say is that the anti-government fervor on the right is Obama's fault.
-- Paul Waldman