When President Obama, after months of delay, was finally ready to launch strikes against a dictator in Syria, he suddenly found that the American people were not behind him. A NBC News poll released at the start of the month found 50 percent of respondents opposed taking military action, while only 42 percent approved. And barely a fifth of people (21 percent) believed an attack on Syria was in America’s national interest.
Obama’s domestic agenda faces similar public disapproval. Three years after its passage, Obamacare remains as unpopular as ever, with 49 percent of Americans opposing the law, according to a poll by Gallup published in early September. Just 41 percent of people approve. Other polls consistently show majorities of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track, and disapprove of the President’s job performance.
We are left with a conundrum: why is it that President Obama, reelected less than twelve months ago, and still personally popular with voters, already seems like a lame duck?
The answer partly lies in remarks Obama made himself in 2008, when he was still a senator from Illinois, describing the Presidency of Ronald Reagan: “I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path…”
Obama was right: the Reagan Presidency transformed the nation. The Gipper rolled back the size and scope of government; reforms so popular that they endured for years after he left the White House. He led the American people in a conservative direction, and they stayed there.
That is the mark of a truly great president – their ability to forever change the politics of the nation. Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson, for example, are listed amongst the greats because their reforms (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) fundamentally altered the nature of American government. Even today, these government programs are so hugely popular that no serious contender for the White House has ever attempted to undo them.
President Obama succeeded in passing elements of an ambitious domestic agenda, just like Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan. But unlike those predecessors, his policies do not enjoy wide public support. He tried to move America in a left-wing direction, and the country wouldn’t budge.
He failed to move what some academics call the Overton Window (so named after Joseph P. Overton, former Vice President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy). The “window” contains the spectrum of policies the American people are prepared to accept on a given subject. Ideas that fall within the window are acceptable, ideas outside of the window are considered extreme, and therefore rejected.
It is a president’s job to move the Overton Window toward the policies they wish to implement or defend from attack. Reagan moved the Overton Window to the right; Roosevelt and Johnson moved it to the left. Obama has not been able to move it at all.
A Fox News exit poll from the 2012 election, for example, showed that a majority of Americans preferred Mitt Romney’s economic program and plans to tackle the federal deficit. And 51 percent of those polled agreed with the statement: “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”