“You woke the bears! Why did you do that?” That’s from one of my favorite scenes in “Anchorman.” In the Oscar-robbed film, Ron Burgundy (played by Will Ferrell) loudly leaps into a bear pit to rescue his girlfriend and then falsely blames her for waking them up.
Watching President Obama these days reminds me of that scene.
In March 2010, liberal columnist Peter Beinart argued that for decades, Democratic politicians treated America’s innate conservatism like a slumbering bear: If you make no sudden moves and talk quietly, you can get a lot done. But if you wake the bear, as Democrats did in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the ursine silent majority will punish you.
But Mr. Obama promised to change that. He was tired of the timid, almost apologetic talk. He was going to be a Franklin D. Roosevelt, or at least a Ronald Reagan, for liberalism. He was going to “fundamentally transform” the country. And to those who counseled that Democrats can’t govern that way, Mr. Obama and his followers responded with shouts of “Yes, we can!”
You might think it was those shouts that woke the bear, but that’s not what happened. After all, Mr. Obama enjoyed stunning popularity when he entered the Oval Office.
No, it wasn’t words but deeds that roused the beast. The poorly crafted, deeply partisan stimulus was like a sharp stick to the bear’s belly. But it was Obamacare that ended the hibernation.
Despite his deployment of every rhetorical weapon in the progressive arsenal, Mr. Obama could never make the thing popular. At town hall meetings, the bear growled and snorted, in a posture that the experienced psephological woodsman understands means “leave the bear alone.” The Democratic response was to mock the grizzly. Nancy Pelosi even called the town hall protesters “un-American.”
By July 2009, Gallup found Americans had attitudes that were “conspicuously incongruous with the results of the 2008 elections.” The 2010 midterm elections showed just how incongruous.
Of the myriad miscalculations made by Mr. Obama, among the most fateful has to be his assumption that a repudiation of George W. Bush was synonymous with a repudiation of conservatism. By Election Day in 2008, Mr. Bush’s approval rating was at 25 percent. You cannot get that low without losing a sizable slice of your base, particularly when self-described conservatives outnumber self-described liberals by roughly 2-1. It was their opposition to Mr. Bush’s big-government conservatism that made them the feedstock of the Tea Parties.
Mr. Obama probably understands this dynamic better as his own poll numbers sink not only among independents but with his base, which has convinced itself that his - and the country’s - problems stem from appeasing the conservative bear. Mr. Obama’s bizarre harangue of the Congressional Black Caucus on Saturday - “Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” - was a testament to the cratering enthusiasm of his biggest supporters.
The dilemma for Mr. Obama is that non-liberals don’t see the situation the same way. As nearly every poll shows, more than 70 percent of Americans believe we’re on the wrong track, and the number of people calling themselves conservative continues to grow, as does the number of moderates who say they lean to the right. According to Pew, the average voter places himself twice as far from Democrats as he does from Republicans.
Moreover, notes Brookings Institution scholar William A. Galston, a domestic-policy adviser under President Clinton, the average voter thinks the Democrats are much more liberal than the average liberal does, “so when independents, who see themselves as modestly right of center, say that Democrats are too liberal, average Democrats can’t imagine what they’re talking about.”
It’s not just about labels (although labels matter). According to Gallup, Americans think 51 cents out of every dollar sent to Washington is wasted. That’s rough terrain for selling more spending and higher taxes.
So here’s Mr. Obama in a very rough spot. He needs more than just his base to win, yet he can’t win without his base. But he can’t secure it without slapping the bear even more. And unlike Ron Burgundy, he’s really got no one to blame but himself.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.