Barack Obama promised change during his White House campaign last year and ran on a distinctly liberal platform of comprehensive health care reform, investing in new energy and good jobs, ending the Bush-era tax cuts for the very wealthy, and ending the war in Iraq. Obama won more votes than any other candidate in American history, and his victory capped off several years' worth of sweeping Democratic electoral wins.
Yet almost within hours of Obama's victory, portions of the political press corps insisted America remained firmly planted on the “center-right” of the political spectrum. “This country, even with the election of Barack Obama last night, remains a very centered country, or maybe even center-right in a lot of places,” NBC's Tom Brokaw announced less than one day after Obama claimed victory. Brokaw later added, “We still remain a centered country or a center-right country when you look at the geographic distribution.”
Soon Newsweek editor Jon Meacham insisted that to govern successfully, Obama had to become a center-right leader in order to match America's “instinctively conservative” streak. (The center-right press push actually began shortly before Election Day, with the late-October Newsweek cover story “America the Conservative.” ) And The Washington Post's David Broder warned that too many victorious Democrats in Congress had “ideas of their own about what should be done in energy, health care and education.” Broder ignored the fact that surveys indicated most American favored many of those Democratic ideas.
From the press' perspective, the broad Democratic wins last November did not signify a sea change in American politics, which was how the media treated big Republican wins in 1980 and 1994. Instead, the Democratic wins last year unfolded in spite of voters' natural conservative leanings.
It made sense for partisan conservatives, eager to downplay their losses, to push the center-right claim in the wake of November's stinging defeats. (Karl Rove, appearing on Fox News the day after Obama's win: “Barack Obama understands this is a center-right country.” ) It's misleading, though, for the news media to echo that spin, since it's not factually sound. Still, months into Obama's first term, the center-right claim enjoyed widespread media acceptance.
“You could make the argument that this is still a center-right country,” said Fox News anchor Chris Wallace in February, just minutes after displaying an on-air graphic that showed widespread Republican losses in recent elections. “We remain a center-right nation in many ways -- particularly culturally, and our instinct,” Newsweek's Meacham reiterated that month. And MSNBC's Chris Matthews echoed the claim in April: “I've noted that we're right of center except when we're in a crisis, when we're left of center.” In May, too: “The true north is somewhere right of center, not left of center.”
The center-right trend is a familiar one. For years, the Beltway press has consistently announced, in spite of widespread issue-based polling data that proved otherwise, that America leans center-right, while implying that Democrats are electorally successful only if they're able to camouflage whatever liberal impulses they might have.
“These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats,” said CBS' Bob Schieffer the day after they scored big wins in the 2006 midterm elections. It wasn't true, though. A Media Matters survey of the 30 newly elected House Democrats who took Republican seats in 2006 found that they advocated liberal positions, such as raising the minimum wage, changing course in Iraq, funding embryonic stem cell research, and opposing any effort to privatize Social Security.
For the press, Democratic victories are explained away as candidates' having moved to the right, while Republican victories are confirmed as a true expression of America's conservative pulse.
Even after the Democratic landslide victory in November -- following a campaign in which Republicans branded Obama as “the most liberal” member of the U.S. Senate -- and even after Democrats took control of both house of Congress and won governorships and state legislatures nationwide, the news media continued to propagate the falsehood that America is a fundamentally conservative country.
The strong job approval ratings that Obama has posted during his first months in office, during a period when he unveiled an often proactive and progressive agenda, undercut the claim that the country is center-right. In fact, conservative commentators, particularly those on Fox News, have portrayed Obama as so liberal that his activist agenda bordered on socialist or even Marxist. Yet according to Gallup polling, Obama's approval ratings for this first 100 days in office were higher than those of any president since Ronald Reagan and higher than seven of the last eight presidents at the 100-day mark. It doesn't seem likely that an entrenched center-right nation would reward such a liberal president with historically high job-approval ratings. However, a centrist or center-left nation would.
And all indications today are that America is becoming just that. Polling data regarding a wide range of issues, including the role of big business, health care reform, gay marriage, stimulus spending, international trade, and Social Security, indicate that Americans are increasingly receptive to and comfortable with a progressive agenda.
It would be hard, furthermore, to argue that voters were somehow fooled about what Obama's agenda would be. A Pew Research Center poll in October 2008 showed that voters identified Obama as “liberal” and roughly as far to the left as John McCain was to the right. By overwhelming numbers, voters selected the liberal candidate over the conservative one.
The idea that America is a center-right country whose citizens are skeptical of, if not hostile toward, progressive candidates and policies has long been a staple of political commentary. There would be nothing problematic in journalists' relying on this notion if actual evidence existed to support it. The truth, however, is that in most policy areas, it is progressive ideas that enjoy majority support. At a time when Democrats control not only the White House and both houses of Congress but a majority of governorships and state legislatures, as well, the picture of America as a center-right country has become particularly hard to sustain.
The term “center-right” itself is based on questionable premises. It comes from the notion that combining the “right” -- self-described conservatives -- with the “center” -- self-described moderates (or in a partisan context, Republicans with independents) -- creates the center-right majority of the country. But on issue after issue, and in growing percentages over time, nominal independents or moderates increasingly mirror the opinions of nominal Democrats or liberals. The majority is center-left; it is the right that is isolated. Click here to read the full report.