The American political climate has undergone substantial changes since President Obama took office, Government Professor Theda R. Skocpol said in her Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture on American Politics last Friday.
Skocpol discussed the Tea Party’s impact on the Republican Party and speculated about the 2012 elections during an event sponsored by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies called “Obama’s New Deal, Tea Party Reaction, and America’s Political Future.”
Skocpol commented on the first two years of the Obama presidency, and the erosion of public support seen in the midterm elections. She said changes in voting demographics—including a higher turnout of older, white voters in the 2010 elections—is a natural part of democratic politics.
“Only the starry-eyed would have assumed otherwise,” Skocpol said.
Though Skocpol said the Obama administration “did achieve a lot” during its first two years, successes in the policy realm did not “lead to political payoffs.”
“In fact, it arguably led to much more than the usual cyclical turn [back to the Republicans],” she said.
Skocpol also discussed her personal conversations with Tea Party members and their influence on the midterm elections.
“Many are very well informed of the lawmaking process, but they don’t know what is in the bills,” she said.
The forum also featured commentary from Government Professor Daniel Carpenter, Princeton Professor Larry M. Bartels, former Oklahoma Congressperson and Aspen Institute Director Marvin Henry “Mickey” Edwards, and Cornell Professor Suzanne Mettler.
Edwards said the Obama administration may have miscalculated the strength of public support for their policy initiatives.
“There is a chance that the American people did understand and simply disagreed with what he was trying to do. It is surprising when you find the public you thought was behind you standing somewhat off to the side,” Edwards said.
The panel also cited the current administration’s general failure to explain many of its policies and actions to the American people as a contributing factor to public opposition.
“Those policies that Obama sought to reform were generally invisible to most Americans,” Mettler said.
“I came to learn more about what’s going on in politics,” Cambridge resident Tim Abraham said. “I’m glad [Skocpol] brought up the story of what’s in the healthcare bill. No one’s really explained it to me either.”