I am no expert on American culture, but I do analyze public opinion data, and I think that the Tea Party types recently elected to the House of Representative are misreading the public and misunderstanding their mandate. In 2009 and 2010, President Obama overplayed his hand and did not respond effectively to both legitimate and unwarranted attacks on his policies and his leadership.
Americans mistrust large, powerful institutions that they don't control. That's been true since the real Tea Party back in revolutionary Boston Harbor, but these early Americans also celebrated community and charity. A hungry child or an abandoned senior was unacceptable then and is unacceptable now. We build libraries, schools, skating rinks, ball fields and parks that are open to rich and poor. Here in New York City we also built hospitals, housing, and a great public university as well.
Our national myth is that anyone can rise from humble beginnings -- perhaps like Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- and they might even become president. The Tea Party philosophy was popular when it was against big bad government. It is growing unpopular as it attacks funding for widows and orphans. Recent polling indicates that public support for the Tea Party has started to decline.
The miniature government advocated by the radical right in the House of Representatives is not a proposal that fits with the mainstream of American public opinion. Bill Clinton may have ended "welfare as we know it," but he did not allow the social safety net to disappear. With the earned income tax credit, he provided a real boost to the living standards of the working poor in America. Americans didn't like the results of the pre-Clinton welfare system and its impact on families and communities, but we were not about to allow people to go without food and shelter. We like rugged individualism and capitalism, but America's instinct for charity is just as deep and profound.
The right wing's budget-driven attack on Medicare is a breach of the social contract between the American government and the American people. The coming attack on Social Security is more of the same. There is a reason why smart politicians have avoided reforming these entitlements. Social Security and health care are complex systems and the politics that surrounds them is emotionally charged. The political reaction is so deep because you are talking about the health and well being of your parents and loved ones. Massive cuts in funding threaten an entitlement that has deep roots in our culture.
A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll indicated that the public is willing to increase the retirement age for everyone and reduce Social Security and Medicare payments for the wealthy. The poll also indicated that less than a quarter favored making significant cuts to these programs. According to Journal reporters Neil King Jr. and Scott Greenberg:
"Americans across all age groups and ideologies said by large margins that it was "unacceptable'' to make significant cuts in entitlement programs in order to reduce the federal deficit. Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security "unacceptable."
Similarly, American popular support for environmental protection is deep and wide. It cuts across region and ideology. After a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the release of radioactivity in Japan, the public is looking for more environmental protection, not less. Using the budget to cut resources for protecting the environment is a sneaky end run that is doomed to fail.
While a government shut-down would be a mistake for a wide variety of reasons, if the president capitulates to the Tea Party on health care, Social Security or the environment, he will be making an even larger mistake. The anti-tax and anti-establishment rhetoric of the Tea Party is in the process of being exposed as mean-spirited, anti-community and anti-charity. The president can appeal to the generosity, charity and community mindedness of the American people.
This is a pivotal moment in the Obama presidency. He has capitulated on tax policy, closing Guantanamo, and a number of other key issues. He needs to make a stand on the core issues being attacked by the Tea Party in this budget process. The politics here centers around the character of the President, not the specific issues within the budget. He needs to demonstrate the courage of his convictions and his willingness to stand up to the current onslaught. If he takes a determined and consistent stand, he will gain politically and his presidency will grow in stature.