The audacity of nope

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; C01

The state of the union is obstreperous. Dyspepsia is the new equilibrium. All the passion in American politics is oppositional. The American people know what they don't like, which is: everything.

That sounds like nihilism, but they're against that, too.

Consider the poll last week by The Washington Post and ABC News. People were asked a standard question about how much confidence they had in President Obama to "make the right decisions" for the nation's future. A majority -- 53 percent -- gave the two most dismal of the four possible responses: "just some" and "none at all." The same question had been asked a year earlier; in just 12 months, the "none at all" camp had tripled, from 9 percent to 27 percent.

We are at a strange moment: a crescendo in American anger even as the man in the White House hums along in a state of preternatural equanimity. Obama, who will take over prime-time television Wednesday night for his annual address to Congress, has seen such a drastic erosion of popularity that he may get only about 35 or 40 standing ovations instead of the usual 50 or so.

Lawmakers will feel some kinship with the president, because they're all getting pummeled by the public. Democrats in Congress did worse than Obama in the Post-ABC poll, and Republicans in Congress did worst of all. The health-care bill that lawmakers have labored on for the past year has gotten a national thumbs-down: According to a new USA Today/Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans want Congress to suspend work on the current health-care bills and start over.

And that $787 billion stimulus package? No, thanks. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 56 percent of those surveyed said they oppose the government's effort to juice the economy.

"You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything," Obama said at a town hall gathering in Ohio last week. "That's how you do it. You don't offend anybody. I'd have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, 'What a genius.' "

The Againstness Epidemic has been years in the making. Individual strains of opposition have been cultivated in the petri dishes of special interest groups, religious fundamentalists, blogs, cable TV shows, talk radio, fringe subcultures (birthers, truthers, tea partiers). They feed into, and are fed by, entrenched industries of disagreeableness (fossil fuel companies, labor unions, the Chamber of Commerce, Rush Limbaugh). We live in a country in which being contrarian now means advocating a mainstream initiative.

The orthodox view among pundits is that Americans have lost faith in government. That argument masks a deeper truth: Americans have also lost faith in pundits.

Also in orthodox views.

In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama imagined a new path forward, one in which partisans would overcome their differences, suppress their rancor and work together to achieve wonderful things:

"[I]t's precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country. . . . What's needed is a broad majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents of goodwill -- who are reengaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others."

The book now seems as dated as "The Iliad." The common ground that Obama hoped for has turned out to be the size of a bathroom scale.

Far more in tune with the times is a new book titled "We Are Doomed," by John Derbyshire, who argues that his fellow conservatives have succumbed to "foolishly utopian ways of thinking," and need to get in touch with their inner pessimists.

"I call you to the politics of despair!" Derbyshire writes.

Also on the shelf in the Politics/Government/Hysteria section of bookstores:

"Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism" (Ann Coulter)

"Men in Black: How the Supreme Court Is Destroying America" (Mark Levin)

"Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back" (Jim Hightower)

"Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class" (Thom Hartmann)

"Fleeced: How Barack Obama, Media Mockery of Terrorist Threats, Liberals Who Want to Kill Talk Radio, the Self-Serving Congress, Companies That Help Iran, and Washington Lobbyists for Foreign Governments, Are Scamming Us . . . and What to Do About It" (Dick Morris and Eileen McGann)

There is much talk these days about populism, the political movement advocating the interests of ordinary people rather than elites and capitalists. Increasingly, populism is inseparable from anger. Can someone be a happy populist? Not today: All populists must carry metaphorical pitchforks.

When he ran for president, Obama benefited from the tide of anger. He viewed his victory as a mandate for change, but really he had a mandate to be someone other than George W. Bush. By October 2008, Bush had achieved a "strongly disapprove" rating of 58 percent. Polls showed that voters didn't see much difference between Bush and John McCain. And thus Obama -- who got the Democratic nomination in part because of Hillary Rodham Clinton's unusually large "negatives" -- probably would have been elected even if he had rolled across the country in a tiny clown car.

He has since learned that the American people are almost as opposed to change as they are to the status quo. It now appears that the three major ideological groups that object to the health-care plans under discussion in Congress are: the conservatives, the moderates and the liberals.

Obama's critics on the right have been implacable in their opposition. What's new is how mad liberals are. Conservatives loathe Obama; liberals are merely disgusted with him. Here are a few headlines from liberal blogs Tuesday morning in reaction to the announcement that the president wants a freeze in non-security-related federal spending:

"It's Official: Obama Is an Idiot" (Paul Rosenberg)

"Barack Herbert Hoover Obama?" (Brad DeLong)

"Obama Liquidates Himself" (Paul Krugman)

"Obama's Self-Inflicted Lobotomy Proceeds Apace" (Jonathan Zasloff)

The political winds are gusting, and in no particular direction. Conventional wisdom has become conventional disorientation. The party in power is utterly powerless. The president's last true friend is his dog.

Fickle is the new steadfastness.

The Republican minority has been accused of having no message other than "No." As if that weren't a winning message. As if we lived in an era when the things people were in favor of were more numerous than the things they were against.

That's just not the way it is now. Today, the nays have it.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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