In the extended political argument over the size of the federal government, the last few weeks have favored Team Big. Wall Street excesses, the Gulf Coast oil disaster, the West Virginia mine collapse, the flooding in Tennessee and Kentucky, the Tylenol recall, and the Times Square bomber—it's a long list that reminds us that we depend on the federal government to ward off disaster or limit the damage afterwards.
It would seem to be a good time to be a Democrat—the party that associates itself with activist government. Is it playing out that way?
Democratic officials have to be careful answering this question. No one wants to be seen making political hay out of tragedy or near-tragedy. (Except Rush Limbaugh, who pointed out that the accused Times Square bomber is a registered Democrat: "I wonder if his SUV has an Obama sticker on it.")
But the political benefit from these recent events has been visible enough. Obama administration officials, from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, have said they will "keep a boot on the throat" of BP in order to make sure the company does its share to clean up the oil spill. Today, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a fundraising letter quoting that line and arguing that the oil spill offers a reason to elect Democrats. "We can stand with President Obama and the Democrats who are moving the country forward, or we can allow Republicans—led by Limbaugh and the Tea Parties—to cater to the needs of big corporations and special interests."
David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager and the person heading up the president's 2010 efforts to elect Democrats to Congress, made a similar case to Obama activists Monday. Democrats are pitching themselves as the protectors. Fresh examples on the front page of the misdeeds of Big Oil, insurance companies, and Wall Street help remind Democratic voters why it is important to go to the polls in November.
Disasters also allow President Obama to perform the most appealing, action-figure elements of his job—issuing declarations, visiting disaster areas in a monogrammed windbreaker, and holding emergency briefings. Obama has the political leeway to do this almost as much as he likes. These are, after all, disasters, but also, after George Bush paid the political price for not reacting quickly enough to the Katrina, a president gets a lot of space before he can be tagged with the charge that his reaction is merely self-aggrandizing.
The biggest political bump for Democrats would come if people started connecting improvement in the economy with the government's activism. Democrats think they see the seeds of this in the latest CBS/New York Times poll. Americans are more optimistic about the economy now than at any time since the recession. Forty-one percent say the economy is getting better, up from 33 percent in April. Only 15 percent say the economy is getting worse. President Obama's approval rating on the economy has also improved, with 48 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving of his performance—up five points from last month, and Obama's highest rating since November.
More cautious Democrats worry the poll is a one-off. They (and Republicans) also argue that the recent spate of crises makes for good talking points in a fundraising letter, but aren't likely to lead to a wholesale change in public opinion.
Which is pretty solidly anti-government. A recent Pew poll found that esteem for Congress is at a 25-year low, and that trust in government is also at an historic nadir. "Rather than an activist government to deal with the nation's top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed," wrote the authors. "There is less of an appetite for government solutions to the nation's problems – including more government control over the economy – than there was when Barack Obama first took office."
This suggests that the Republican warnings about big government takeover are hitting home. Republicans hope to build on this mistrust by branding Democratic efforts at smart government into attempts to merely grow government. They point to the recent financial collapse, arguing that government regulators didn't stop the risky behavior on Wall Street that led to the collapse. In some cases, government involvement made the situation worse—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were allowed (some would say pushed) to spin out of control.
Dismal opinions of government are also fed by ready examples of the bureaucracy not doing its job well—from the handling of the Christmas Day bomber to SEC regulators watching pornography instead of doing their jobs. In the case of the Times Square bombing attempt, there were also lapses, and the administration response to the oil spill was not as fast as the White House would like us to believe.
Even well-intentioned legislation can create unintended consequences, conservatives argue. That was the chief claim against the $50 billion liquidation fund that was once a part of the Wall Street reform working its way through Congress. Republicans argued that the fund, meant to help dismantle banks that fail, would send the signal to investors that certain banks were safe investments. They would grow so big that that if they ever did fail, the fund wouldn't be enough. Government would have to step in to rescue them or risk damaging the wider economy. Late Tuesday, Democrats agreed to drop the provision.
Even when it comes to regulating Wall Street—and here public opinion supports more regulation—it's not clear that people want as much regulation as they think Democrats are suggesting. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, half of the 65 percent who support financial regulatory reform say it should be less strict than Democrats are proposing. Crises are a chance to showcase activist government, but they also often end in voters blaming the party in power. Given the number of unpredictable emergencies that have popped up since Barack Obama took office, Democrats may be benefiting now, but the story could change again tomorrow.