Jonah Goldberg writes that recent events seem to be disproving the "rule" (by which I think he means conventional wisdom) that "hard economic times make big government more popular." Obama took over during an economic crisis and expanded the size and reach of government, but the idea of more and bigger government doesn't seem any more popular now than it did five years ago. I think that the "rule" is mostly wrong and I suspect Goldberg does too. I think it is closer to the truth to say that the popularity of the public philosophy of those in power when hard times strike, tends to decline and the popularity of the public philosophy of those in power when things get better tends to increase. The irony is that, depending on how events go, the idea that "hard economic times make big government more popular" may seem more plausible (without actually being more true) in 2012 than now.
The historical record when it comes to "big government" and economic downturns seems pretty complicated even if you simplify by only looking at the downturns and who the public voted for in response to those downturns. As Goldberg well knows the post-WWI economic downturn under Wilson was immediately followed by the election of the lower taxing and lower spending (and quite popular) Harding/Coolidge regime. Now as Reihan Salam might say, there are causal density issues here. There were lots of reasons for voters to repudiate the Wilson administration and liberals have their own self-serving narrative of pro-business stooges being elected by isolationist bumpkins, but the record is clear for those who want to see. The voters, during a severe economic downturn, replaced a high spending and high taxing administration with one that sharply cut both taxes and spending.
FDR would seem to prove the rule that people turn to big government in hard times, but it is more complicated than that. The role of the actual performance of the economy and the assigning of praise and blame to public philosophies for economic events is important to understanding how FDR's administration made his expansion of government so popular and so enduring. FDR's taking office coincided with the resumption of economic growth and increasing employment (though both from much reduced levels.) This surely had something to do with his popularity and the popularity of his program. Bigger government seemed to be making economic life better. This is also a reason why liberal intellectuals worked so hard to portray the progressive Republican Herbert Hoover as a doctrinaire economic noninterventionist. If limited government (personified in Herbert Hoover) could be tied to the Depression and big government (in the form of FDR) could be tied to the recovery, then liberals would have a rhetorical weapon whose usefulness would outlive both Hoover and FDR.
Reagan broke the rules. He was elected during economic hard times (stagflation) and in some ways, things got even tougher in his first year as President (inflation declined but the economy went into a deep recession and unemployment spiked.) Reagan sharply cut taxes, slightly cut the growth of domestic discretionary spending, and supported the Federal Reserve's anti-inflation policies. If you believed the theory that voters want big government during hard times, Reagan experience in 1982 would seem to prove you right. Reagan's job approval rating fell to 36% by the end of 1982 (Source: "The Reagan Presidency and American Public Opinion" by James Ceaser in The Reagan Legacy: Promise and Performance.") He fought the rules and the rules won - except they didn't. The economy recovered, Reagan got a great deal of the credit and he won a huge reelection victory. Once again, the perceptions of what seemed to fail and succeed mattered, which was why liberals in the late 80s and early 90s invested so much time and energy arguing that the Reagan recovery didn't really happen or that it was only a blip or that only greedy people noticed. To the extent that the economic difficulties of the late 70 - to early 80s were blamed on high taxing, high spending, pro-inflation politics, and to the extent that the resolution of those difficulties were tied to lower taxes, lower spending (mostly notional here), anti-inflation politics, the terms of the debate shifted rightwards for decades.
Obama seems to be combining the experiences of both Reagan and FDR. Taking over during the worst recession since the Great Depression, Obama got Congress to pass both a huge stimulus bill and the first step in the government takeover of the health care sector. He took over two of the Big Three American auto companies. He petitioned Congress to pass a combination of taxes and subsidies that would increase government power over the energy sector. The result has been a slow and steady decline in his job approval rating. Even though Obama has tried to act like a junior FDR, the labor market's performance has more closely resembled what happened in the first half of Reagan's first term. Reagan's job approval rating in the July of his second year was 42%. Obama's job approval in Real Clear Politics polling average has been between 46.3% and 48.0% for the July of his second year. FDR's party gained seats in Congress during his first midterm elections. Obama's party (like Reagan's in 1982) will almost certainly lose seat in 2010.But that doesn't mean that Obama and the conventional wisdom that "hard economic times make big government more popular" won't both make a big comeback. If the labor market recovers even a little (down to the low 7s) by the summer of 2012, we can expect, absent some kind of unforeseen disaster, for Obama's job approval ratings to rise. Perhaps more importantly, there will be a powerful narrative pushed by the Democrats and liberal-leaning media to ascribe the improvement in economic conditions to the stimulus, Obamacare, etc. and establish that big government is what people want during tough economic times, and that even bigger government will lead to even more growth and that the next economic downturn will require even bigger big government.