The elemental question in American politics is: Do voters trust their government? During the middle of the 20th century, more than 70 percent of Americans said that they trusted government to do the right thing most of the time.
During the 1970s, that fell. By the Iraq war, only 25 percent trusted government. Now, amid the economic slowdown, public trust has hit an all-time low. According to a CNN/ORC International poll, only 15 percent of Americans asked said that they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time.
This is a problem for Democrats. But Democrats can win elections in this climate if they defuse the Big Government/Small Government ideological debate. With his Third Way approach, Bill Clinton established that he was not a Big Government liberal. Once he crossed that threshold, he could get voters to think about his individual policies, which were actually quite popular. Clinton made a national election feel like a state election (state and local governments are still trusted, and voters are less ideological when voting for those offices).
Barack Obama also crossed the ideological threshold in 2008, running as a post-partisan unifier. But the government activism of his first two years reawakened the Big Government/Small Government frame. Independents and moderate conservatives recoiled.
The Pew Research Center asks voters to place themselves and the two parties on a left-right ideological continuum. In 2006, independent voters said felt they were twice as close to the Democrats as they were to the too-conservative Republicans. Today, they say they feel twice as close to the Republicans.
On issue after issue, the electorate has shifted rightward as independents have moved closer to the GOP. According to a Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans who were asked said they primarily blamed government for the economic slowdown, whereas only 30 percent said they blamed the financial institutions.
The Occupy Wall Street placards advocate income redistribution, but data from the General Social Survey shows that support for redistribution has plummeted during the recession, with the sharpest declines coming among people earning between $7 and $9 an hour.
After the shellacking in the 2010 midterms, Obama tried to cut deals and win back independent voters. But Republicans weren't willing to meet him halfway. So Obama faced a choice. Double down on conciliator mode or become a fighter.
This is the course the Obama campaign has chosen. He's campaigning these days as the populist fighter, the scourge of the privileged class.
Obama, who sounded so fresh in 2008, now sometimes sounds a bit like Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi. Obama, who inspired the country, now threatens to run a campaign that is viciously negative. Obama, who is still widely admired because he is reasonable and calm, is in danger of squandering his best asset by pretending to be someone he is not. Obama, a natural unifier and conciliator, seems on the verge of running as a divisive populist while accusing Mitt Romney, his possible opponent, of being inauthentic.
It's misguided. It raises the ideological temperature and arouses the Big Government/Small Government debate. It repels independents, who don't like the finance majors but trust history majors even less.
Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we've been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation.
Don't just whisper Grand Bargain in back rooms with John Boehner. Make it explicit. Take it to the country. Lower the ideological atmosphere and get everybody thinking concretely about the real choices facing the nation.
If you don't trust voters to be serious, they won't trust you.