The Conflicted States Of America

What to make of the findings of the latest NYT poll? I have to say it makes me scratch my head. It portends a big Republican wave election, buoyed by a new conviction that people want smaller government that does less rather (55 percent) than a bigger one with more services (36 percent). At the same time, 71 percent oppose reducing social security benefits for future retirees; 54 percent oppose raising the retirement age (42 percent support it); 57 percent oppose not giving social security recipients a raise in benefits this year; and a small majority 45 - 41 do not want the health insurance reform bill repealed.

So Americans - surprise! - want smaller government in theory, but when forced to make any hard choices on spending, balk. Taxes? Surprise! They don't want them raised either - except for those earning over $250,000 a year, but even then only by 48 - 43 margin. They also prefer the Democratic party to the Republicans - the GOP's unfavorability gap was 11, the Dems was 2 - but are going to give us the most hardline conservative House in living memory. So go figure. A bunch of adolescent whiners? More grist for the Kinsley meme that they are just "big babies"? Or just completely confused and disgruntled and lashing out?

Whatever the explanation, I think all this portends a much better future for president Obama than for the Republicans, even as they cruise to victory next week. People are deeply frustrated by the economy, but they do not take Bill O'Reilly's position that Obama owns the recession because after 18 months in office, and a stimulus decried as too much by the right and too little by the left, he still has 9.6 percent unemployment. Only 8 percent blame Obama for the current economy. 30 percent blame Bush; 22 percent blame Wall Street; 13 percent blame Congress. They're not as delusional as Fox News wants them to be.

As for future politics, Americans overwhelmingly trust the Dems on healthcare, favor the GOP on debt reduction (go figure) and split between the parties on creating jobs. But here's the critical thing: a whopping 78 percent want the Republicans to compromise with Obama rather than stick to their positions in the next two years; 76 percent want the Dems to do the same; and a slightly lower percentage, but still overwhelming, wants Obama to compromise too: 69 percent.

In other words, this looks to me as if the public wants to force a deal by both sides to grapple with the long-term debt, the economy and healthcare. Now, who do they think is most likely to do that?

72 percent say that Obama will compromise; but only 46 percent say the Republicans will. I'd say that gives Obama clear edge in future politics, and helps explain why he remains more popular than anybody else in politics, has a solid 46 percent rating even in a deep recession and has higher favorables than anyone else.

He is right and the lefties are wrong. He will be a much stronger and more transformational president if he sticks to pragmatism, avoids culture war fights, and keeps his focus on policy as much as politics. This is the GOP high-point; and as you survey the attitudes of Gingrich, Pence, Palin and McConnell, you can't help but think they are walking directly into the same hubristic trap as Gingrich before them.

They have campaigned on no compromise; yet the public wants them to. If they don't, they look obstructionist; if they do, they lose their base. As long as Obama keeps his cool, and the economy continues to recover, he's looking good.