Obama: Reagan of the Left?

Inaugural ObamaCharles Krauthammer on how Obama envisions himself as the Reagan of the Left:

Obama is the apostle of the ever-expanding state. His speech was an ode to the collectivity. But by that he means only government, not the myriad of voluntary associations — religious, cultural, charitable, artistic, advocacy, ad infinitum — that are the glory of the American system.

For Obama, nothing lies between citizen and state. It is a desert, within which the isolated citizen finds protection only in the shadow of Leviathan. Put another way, this speech is the perfect homily for the marriage of Julia — the Obama campaign’s atomized citizen, coddled from cradle to grave — and the state.

In the eye of history, Obama’s second inaugural is a direct response to Ronald Reagan’s first. On January 20, 1981, Reagan had proclaimed: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And then succeeded in bending the national consensus to his ideology — as confirmed 15 years later when the next Democratic president declared “the era of big government is over.” So said Bill Clinton, who then proceeded to abolish welfare.

Obama is no Clinton. He doesn’t abolish entitlements; he preserves the old ones and creates new ones in pursuit of a vision of a more just social order where fighting inequality and leveling social differences are the great task of government.

Obama said in 2008 that Reagan “changed the trajectory of America” in a way that Clinton did not. He meant that Reagan had transformed the political zeitgeist, while Clinton accepted and thus validated the new Reaganite norm.

Not Obama. His mission is to redeem and resurrect the 50-year pre-Reagan liberal ascendancy. Accordingly, his second inaugural address, ideologically unapologetic and aggressive, is his historical marker, his self-proclamation as the Reagan of the Left. If he succeeds in these next four years, he will have earned the title.

Ross Douthat offers “three reasons why Obama might not be remembered as the kind of ‘liberal Reagan’ that he seems to be today.”

1) Obama’s political victories are clearer than his policy accomplishments. The question of whether Obamacare will be implemented has been answered; the question of whether it can survive its own design flaws has not. The question of whether Obamanomics would be rejected by the public in the short run has been answered; the question of whether it can produce the kind of longer-run growth that previous generations of Americans took for granted has not. (The sluggish economic recovery barely figured into the second inaugural, and the president talked more about green industrial policy than about the plight of the unemployed.) The question of whether Obama’s foreign policy would avoid major disasters and be an asset in his re-election bid has been answered; the question of whether his navigation of the Arab Spring and his attempts to contain Iran will look skillful in hindsight has not. Obama plainly turned the social issues to his party’s advantage last year (with a major assist from Todd Akin). But a tentative and ambiguous pro-choice trend in public opinion after a long period of pro-life gains does not mean that liberals have won the abortion wars, especially given that the main policy shift of the Obama era has been an uptick in state-level abortion restriction. And even on gay marriage, where most observers — myself included — assume that the Obama era will be remembered as genuinely transformational, that transformation has only actually been achieved in nine of the fifty states.

None of this means that Obama won’t ultimately being remembered for policy triumphs as clear the victory over stagflation or the successful resolution of the Cold War, or that his presidency won’t cast a long, Reagan-like shadow over subsequent policy debates. But we don’t know that yet: The current recovery is no Reagan boom, it will be years before we can tell if the Affordable Care Act lives up its name, and plenty of surprises may await in the next four years. And remember — if passing major legislation, building a stable-seeming coalition, presiding over okay-but-not-great growth and winning a hard-fought re-election were enough to earn a spot on Rushmore, George W. Bush’s face would be being chiseled there right now.

2) Liberalism, no less than conservatism, is riven by internal contradictions. The Obama majority does indeed reflect the diversity of twenty-first America, just as its enthusiastic boosters claim: It’s the party of Silicon Valley billionaires and immigrants who work at Wal-Mart, of public sector employees and affluent dual-earner professionals, of the secular academy and the black church, of the multiracial Southwest and white New England. But for political parties as well as human societies, diversity is as often a weakness as a strength, and it’s easy enough to imagine scenarios where the Democratic Party of the near-future fractures along lines of race or geography, class or culture.

These crack-ups could happen over issues where the party seems superficially united at the moment, like guns and immigration and environmentalism, or they could happen over issues where the divisions are already there for everyone to see, like Medicare and Social Security. They could divide the party’s shrinking-but-still-large pool of white voters from its minority constituents, or they could divide minority voters from each other on one or more of the many issues where the interests of all Hispanics, all African-Americans or all Asians do not obviously align. Above all, they could force Democrats to choose, decisively and disruptively, between their traditional identity as the party of middle-class entitlements and their current identity as the party of low taxes on everyone except the richest of the rich — a choice that the Obama administration has thus far deliberately postponed.

3) The Republican Party is, in fact, capable of change. These potential fissures within liberalism won’t matter if the G.O.P. remains as hapless as it is today. And there’s a increasingly popular strain of opinion on the left that holds that Republicans are now structurally incapable of moderation, reform and self-correction — that the grip of ideology is too strong, the demands of the base too intense, the party’s distance of twenty-first America too great. If this view is right, the G.O.P. is almost irrelevant to liberalism’s fortunes, and Obama’s political legacy is really only threatened by “black swan” events like suitcase nukes and 2008-style financial panics.

But just because the G.O.P. looks like it could spend a generation in the wilderness doesn’t meant that it actually will. National parties exist to win national elections, and that incentive alone often suffices to drive changes that the party’s interest groups and ideological enforcers dislike. For every case like the Republicans of the 1930s and the 1940s, the Carter-Mondale-Dukakis Democrats, or the British Tories between John Major and David Cameron, there’s another case where a party that seems to have lost its way completely turns out to be one successful campaign, one appealing nominee or one change of circumstances away from a comeback. In modern G.O.P. history alone, the Goldwater rout was swiftly succeeded by the Nixon realignment, and the various Gingrich-era debacles by the rise of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” We are only one presidential term removed from the latter rebranding, and the idea that it cannot happen again (albeit hopefully along somewhat different lines) seems ahistorical and naive. Yes, obviously, the Republican Party might remain a mess for years to come. But liberals who expect that continuing conservative dysfunction will help cement Obama’s legacy are betting on a trend, not counting on a certainty.

I’ll end where I ended one of last week’s posts, with two numbers: 51 and 23. The first is the percentage of Americans who told Gallup they were “very satisfied” with the country’s direction in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s second term; the second is the average who said the same last month. Liberalism’s current ascendance is undeniable, and the president’s goal of a transformational presidency is plainly within his reach. But until the second number rises closer to the first one, those transformations will remain at least partially reversible, and Obama’s quest to become liberalism’s Reagan will be incomplete.



One thought on “Obama: Reagan of the Left?

  1. As the dowager Lady Violet might say about Obama. : ”I don’t dislike him, I just don’t like him, which is quite different.”

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