President Barack Obama learned from Bill Clinton's mistakes in 1993-94. He ran, relative to Clinton, a buttoned-up transition. He sought to avoid Clinton's tactical miscues on health care. And he steered clear of cultural land mines.
The backlash against Democrats in 1994 was famously attributed to "gays, guns and G0d." Obama has mostly avoided stoking opposition around that hot-button triad, but faces a backlash almost indistinguishable in feel and intensity. Why?
Big government became a cultural issue. The level of spending, the bailouts and the intervention in the economy contemplated in health-care reform and cap-and-trade created the fear that something elemental was changing in the country quickly, irrevocably, without notice.
Obama has run up against the country's cultural conservatism as surely as Clinton did. But Obama is encountering its fiscal expression, the sense that America has always been defined by a more stringently limited government than other advanced countries. It's an "American exceptionalism" backlash.
The roots of our exceptionalism extend all the way back to our mother country, England, which was less centralized, hierarchical and feudal than the rest of Europe. Taking England's incipient liberalism and stretching it to its logical conclusion, we became the most liberal polity ever known to man.
Without the medieval encumbrances and the powerful, entrenched special interests that plagued other countries, the United States could make Adam Smith's ideas the basis of its economic dispensation. Historian John Steele Gordon writes, "The United States has consistently come closer to the Smithian ideal over a longer period of time than any other major nation."
Despite the waves of 20th-century progressivism represented by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, we arrived in this century still a country apart. Prior to its recent run-up, total government spending remained about 36 percent of GDP in the U.S. In Europe, the figure was higher 44 percent in Britain, 53 percent in France and 56 percent in Sweden, and they spend less on defense than we do.
Traditionally we have defined our national defense not only as securing our interests abroad, but exporting our model of liberty, a missionary impulse that reflects how we took English liberties and universalized them. We would be an "empire of liberty," Thomas Jefferson said. In the 20th century it proved so, with a strain of democratic idealism running through presidents as disparate as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The left has long been scandalized by our cussed differentness. Progressive intellectuals last century looked to alternative foreign models like Bismarck's Germany. You can hear the same plaint in contemporary liberalism: Why can't we be more like them like the French, like the Swedes, like any people with a larger, busier government overawing the private sector and civil society?
Obama is answering the call. Spending is sneaking up to European levels an estimated 44 percent of GDP this year even before the baby boomers retire. He seeks to give us European-style health-care, energy and labor policies.
Abroad, Obama has often displayed a dismaying defensiveness about his country. He appears to have an allergy both to U.S power and to the word "democracy." His foreign policy is humble without being idealistic, and therefore something altogether new. In John Bolton's pungent phrase, he's a "post-American president."
All of this has created a roiling reaction. The ground troops of this revolt aren't the Christian right activists of 1994. Instead, they are tea-partiers driven by the growth of government. Their catchphrase of "taking back the country" isn't an appeal to power so much as a clarion call to preserve the foundations of the country's distinctiveness. The debt, for them, isn't just about fiscal probity but our way of life.
Of course, the American tradition has ample room for government expansion or the welfare state wouldn't already be so large, and Obama is weighed down as well by the weak economy. But his rush to social democracy has touched a raw cultural nerve. He's avoided "G0d, guns and gays," and hit on something more profound.