In the upcoming issue of America, I describe “15 Ways President Obama Has Changed the Direction of America,” building off the president's own seagoing metaphor from a 2015 interview with the podcaster Marc Maron: “Sometimes the task of the government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that 10 years from now, we’re in a very different place than we were.” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik was also taken by the imagery, and he makes a distinction between centrism and the president’s more ambitious style of governing: “Liberalism of the kind he practices…is the most truly radical of ideologies, inasmuch as it proposes a change, makes it happen, and then makes it last.”
But if each new president is an equal and opposite reaction to the outgoing chief excecutive, we may not be hearing any talk about two-degree improvements for a while. With one exception, all of the major candidates for president this year have depicted the United States as a ship taking on water, about to capsize if we make the wrong choice this fall. The exception is Democrat Hillary Clinton, who advocates a steady-as-we-go approach while Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are trying to get people onto lifeboats.
Voters may be choosing their candidates accordingly. Politico recently reported on a web survey from March showing that 61 percent of Clinton supporters think the United States is heading “in the right direction,” compared with 37 percent of Sanders supporters and 23 percent of Trump supporters.
A Pew Research Center survey, also from March, found that only 22 percent of Democrats supporting Hillary Clinton feel that life in America is worse now than it was 50 years ago “for people like them”—not surprising, given Ms. Clinton’s strength among African-Americans and other groups who have benefited from civil rights legislation over the past few decades. What might be called the “worse for me” bloc was at 34 percent for Democrats backing Mr. Sanders and 75 percent for Republicans supporting Mr. Trump. Most Republicans who had backed Ted Cruz or John Kasich also felt that things were getting worse.
Ms. Clinton probably has the more accurate sense of how much change is advisable, or even possible with a Congress that will likely be closely divided and will certainly not be receptive to big-ticket proposals. But Mr. Trump’s promise that we can all jump on an America’s Cup yacht and sail our way to prosperity—or does he really mean all of us?—is going to tempt a lot of voters.