If you are a liberal and you debate politics with your counterparts from the political right, you have probably taken a beating these past few months. You have heard all the anti-Obama talking points already as your conservative friends try to convince you that the president and his party are undermining the country with liberalism.

They might cite President Barack Obama’s latest disapproval rating of 55 percent, according to the Sept. 5 Rasmussen Reports (even though a significant number of those people disapprove probably because they think Obama is not liberal enough). Another item they could bring up is Obama’s re-election prospects against a generic Republican presidential candidate, which show the president down 39 to 47 percent, according to a Gallup poll conducted this summer (of course, “generic Republican presidential candidate” does not have Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s anti-evolution problem or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s “corporations are people” problem). They might even try to indict the whole Democratic Party by pointing out the disapproval ratings of Congressional Democrats, which sat at 68 percent in mid-August according to the Associated Press (Republican Congressmen polled even worse, however, at 75 percent disapproval).

Perhaps the most damning statistic, the old “right direction or wrong track” question as posed by Reuters, shows that a whopping 73 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. The overarching point, your conservative friends may say, is that Obama and the Democrats are making things worse in this country by pursuing extreme left-wing policy. Therefore, the Dems will eventually get hammered for it because the public agrees with Republicans.

But let’s dive deeper into the “wrong track” statistic because a) conservative pundits and politicians love to use it to attack the president’s liberal views and b) I poked holes in the other talking points already. The implication of the statistic is that if the country is on the wrong track, the president (and by extension, liberal policy) must be at fault because he is the highest-ranking official in the land — or as former President George W. Bush puts it, the “decider.” Of course, that inference makes sense — if you try not to think too much. The leap that conservatives like to make is from “the country is on the wrong track, and Obama is leading the country” to “conservative policy is therefore the right way to go, and Obama’s agenda is not popular.” And what a leap it is.

Presumably, when the “right direction or wrong track” question is asked by pollsters, people have in mind a “right direction” for the country. Therefore, figuring out what that direction is would be informative when trying to determine who to blame for America being on the wrong track. Let’s use the economy as an example because it seems to be the most important issue heading into the 2012 elections.

What do Americans think is a good way forward for the economy? According to a CNN poll in August, 63 percent of Americans want higher-income earners and corporations to pay higher taxes, a decidedly liberal view preached by Obama that pours cold water on Republicans trying to create an economically populist message. Currently, taxes on the wealthy and businesses are at the lowest levels in decades, and big business profits are at historic highs (a conservative utopia, right?). How about solving the nation’s long-term debt problem? An average of 23 polls over the past eight months show that 65 percent of Americans want a balanced approach consisting of spending cuts and revenue increases. Again, this approach is something that Obama has advocated for repeatedly, while the GOP has stubbornly insisted on reducing the deficit solely through spending cuts. By the way, the GOP plan is what the country got in the recent debt deal.

After taking a look at these poll numbers, what Americans want is clear: liberal economic policy. Even if we don’t talk about what economists say — the stimulus should have been larger, for example — the Republicans cannot claim that the public is on their side. Perhaps Obama has been ineffective in legislating his ideas in the face of historically intransigent opposition, leading to disappointment in the country’s direction. However, conflating that disappointment with the notion that people are turning away from liberal policies would be a mistake. People are still buying Obama’s hope and change. When people say the country is on the wrong track, many believe Republicans are the drivers.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu.

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