An interesting paradox. Last year, America elected a president who, in attitudes and policies, is closer to the elites of Western Europe than any of his predecessors. Yet in the nine months that he has been in office, ordinary Americans have been moving away from those attitudes and policies and have increasingly embraced positions that over the years have made Americans distinctive from those in other advanced Western democracies.
Barack Obama’s European tendencies aren’t not in doubt. His policies on government spending, taxation, health care and carbon emissions would all tend to bring America in line with European norms, to a far greater degree than any other president of the last 40 years and probably any president ever.
And what of America’s special place in the world? "I believe in American exceptionalism," Obama said on one of his trips to Europe, "just as I suspect that Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." In other words, not at all. One cannot imagine Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Eisenhower or Reagan uttering such sentiments.
Obama told European Union parliamentarians in Strasbourg that he hailed "your dynamic union," but most Americans seem to have some vestigial knowledge that over the last 60 years, America has been more dynamic — economically, culturally, politically, militarily — than our friends across the Atlantic. And when presented with public policies that would make us more like Europe, Americans have tended to recoil.
Examples abound. Despite the recession, by about 50 to 40 percent Americans continue to prefer smaller government with fewer services to larger government with more services (June ABC/Washington Post and CBS/New York Times polls). Some 80 percent want the government to sell its interest in General Motors (July Rasmussen poll).
A 58 to 35 percent majority say keep the budget deficit down even if it takes longer for the economy to recover (NBC/WSJ June). A 53 to 33 percent majority oppose more government regulation of the finance sector (Rasmussen October).
As Europeanizing policies receive more attention, they become less popular. June’s 50 to 45 percent approval of Democratic health care proposals morphs to a similar margin of disapproval in October (Rasmussen). And satisfaction with one’s own health care arrangements rises from 29 percent in 2008 and 35 percent in May 2009 to 48 percent in August (Rasmussen again).
European elites support gun control and curbs on carbon emissions almost unanimously. Americans don’t — and are moving in the other direction. Support for a handgun ban has fallen from 60 percent in 1960 and 43 percent in the early 1990s to 29 percent in May 2009 (Gallup). By a 48 to 34 percent margin, Americans believe global warming is caused by long-term planetary trends rather than human activity (Rasmussen April); in 2008 it was almost exactly the other way around.
European leaders agree with Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo detention facility. Americans disagree by a 52 to 39 percent margin (NBC/WSJ June). Europeans accept a large role for unions. American approval for labor unions fell from 59 percent in 2008 to 48 percent in spring 2009, by far the lowest figure since Gallup began asking the question in 1936.
Gallup reports that 39 percent of Americans this year say their views have grown more conservative, while only 18 percent say they have become more liberal. No wonder Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who with Republican Bill McInturff conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, said in June that Obama and the Democrats "are going to have to navigate in pretty choppy waters."
The late political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, who wrote a book on American exceptionalism, long noted that Americans are more individualistic and less collectivist than Western Europeans (or Canadians). The election of a president who in many ways seeks to push America in a European direction seems to have increased rather than decreased those differences.
Why? My explanation is that until November 2008, Americans did not have any reason to contemplate what a more European approach would mean in real-life terms. Now, with Obama in the White House and a heavily Democratic Congress, they do. And they mostly don’t like it.
Hence the embarrassment of liberal commentators and, it seems, the president himself when five Norwegian parliamentarians tendered him the Nobel Peace Prize. European elites are delighted with Obama’s European approach. Most American voters aren’t.