Barack Obama promised change during his White House campaign last year and ran on a distinctly liberal platform of comprehensive health care reform, investing in new energy and good jobs, ending the Bush‐era tax cuts for the very wealthy, and ending the war in Iraq. Obama won more votes than any other candidate in American history, and his victory capped off several years’ worth of sweeping Democratic electoral wins.
Yet almost within hours of Obama’s victory, portions of the political press corps insisted America remained firmly planted on the “center‐right” of the political spectrum.
From the press’ perspective, the broad Democratic wins last November did not signify a sea change in American politics, which was how the media treated big Republican wins in 1980 and 1994. Instead, the Democratic wins last year unfolded in spite of voters’ natural conservative leanings.
It made sense for partisan conservatives, eager to downplay their losses, to push the center‐right claim in the wake of November’s stinging defeats. (Karl Rove, appearing on Fox News the day after Obama’s win: “Barack Obama understands this is a center‐right country.”) It’s misleading, though, for the news media to echo that spin, since it’s not factually sound. Still, months into Obama’s first term, the center‐right claim enjoyed widespread media acceptance.
The center‐right trend is a familiar one. For years, the Beltway press has consistently announced, in spite of widespread issue‐based polling data that proved otherwise, that America leans center‐right, while implying that Democrats are electorally successful only if they’re able to camouflage whatever liberal impulses they might have. ʺThese Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats,ʺ said CBS’ Bob Schieffer the day after they scored big wins in the 2006 midterm elections.
It wasn’t true, though. A Media Matters survey of the 30 newly elected House Democrats who took Republican seats in 2006 found that they advocated liberal positions, such as raising the minimum wage, changing course in Iraq, funding embryonic stem cell research, and opposing any effort to privatize Social Security.
The strong job approval ratings that Obama has posted during his first months in office, during a period when he unveiled an often proactive and progressive agenda, undercut the claim that the country is center‐ right. In fact, conservative commentators, particularly those on Fox News, have portrayed Obama as so liberal that his activist agenda bordered on socialist or even Marxist. Yet according to Gallup polling, Obama’s approval ratings for this first 100 days in office were higher than those of any president since Ronald Reagan and higher than seven of the last eight presidents at the 100‐day mark. It doesn’t seem likely that an entrenched center‐right nation would reward such a liberal president with historically high job‐ approval ratings. However, a centrist or center‐left nation would.
And all indications today are that America is becoming just that. Polling data regarding a wide range of issues, including the role of big business, health care reform, gay marriage, stimulus spending, international trade, and Social Security, indicate that Americans are increasingly receptive to and comfortable with a progressive agenda.