WASHINGTON—Foreign observers who have followed President Obama’s sinking fortunes have a hard time understanding the depth of the voters’ anger and the tea party.

In a recent conversation with French and Spanish journalists, I heard that it made no sense to perceive Obama as a trojan horse of European socialism when he has kept soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan; devoted part of his Nobel Peace Prize speech to justifying war; maintained the Guantanamo prison; signed a health care bill that does not include a single-payer system; prolonged fiscal stimulus policies that were initiated by his predecessor; and supported a monetary policy by the Federal Reserve that was highly encouraged by the Bush administration in 2008.

Last week in Argentina, during a discussion about the Western Hemisphere with a group of center-right leaders, I heard it said that “socialism” was in place well before Obama took office and no tea party objected to the Republican administration’s doubling of the national debt. These were all Obama critics genuinely puzzled by the degree of anger at the president and the insurgence against an administration that in their view is simply taking the secular trend toward big government a couple of steps further.

What is interesting about these comments is what they tell us about the differences between the United States and the rest of the world. With exceptions, whenever there was revulsion against big government in Europe and Latin America, it was the leaders who dragged, and eventually persuaded, the population to their view; in the United States, it is usually the other way around—a libertarian sentiment at the grass roots is eventually seized upon by certain leaders. The mistake many foreign observers are making is to look at some of the leaders giving voice to the anti-Washington sentiment, many of whom can easily be accused of hypocrisy or duplicity, rather than at the genuine fear everyday American citizens are feeling—and which has been a driver of the midterm elections.

Barry Goldwater’s emergence as a conservative/libertarian icon in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan’s triumph in the 1980s and the rise of the tea party movement now are all cases of bottom-up rejection of big-government legacies—the New Deal, the Big Society, the Bush/Obama response to the bursting of the housing bubble—that found their leaders. By contrast, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was a case of top-down leadership cutting through a thicket of skepticism at all levels, including the base of her Conservative Party. Carlos Menem’s privatizations in Argentina in the 1990s were the result of a betrayal of his Peronist mandate. Mart Laar’s radical reforms in Estonia were the result of his seizing the anti-communist moment right after the fall of the Soviet empire. Manmohan Singh’s partial dismantling of India’s bureaucracy in 1991 did not come on the back of a popular insurgence against the socialist legacy of the Congress Party, which obtained the largest number of congressional seats that year; it was owed to the fact that Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who by chance was asked to lead a minority government, appointed Singh as finance minister at a time of financial trouble.

No people feel the connection between the growth of government and their pocketbooks the way Americans do. This is not to say they are consistently against big government. If they were, how would one explain the fact that government has grown so much under both Democrats and Republicans that if the budget were to be cut by 10 percent every year, the numbers in 2030 would look similar to those that were the target of the conservative revolution in 1981? Perhaps this just proves that in America it is usually the people who first rebel against too much state interference—only to be disappointed by small-government leaders who don’t deliver. Because in Europe and Latin America small government seldom starts at the base, reform is usually an unpopular surprise inflicted from the top. Nicolas Sarkozy’s courageous (though timid) attempts to reform the pension system, which have triggered a ferocious popular response in France, are a case in point.

Even if the United States will not see real budget cuts, the curtailment of entitlements and the slashing of the debt anytime soon, the bottom-up rejection of big government is the best hope of holding the big government beast in some kind of check.