After Obama’s inauguration speech, political pundits have started wondering whether he could be the liberal Reagan. Greg Sargent sums it up, although he prefers the term Anti-Reagan to Liberal Reagan.
Little by little, it’s sinking in that Obama’s inaugural speech has the potential to be a turning point in American history, one akin to Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981, in which he declared: “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.” That speech did more than articulate the conservative philosophy of governance; it was a declaration of ideological victory, a proclamation that the nation had opted for a new ideological direction.
Obama’s speech was every bit as ambitious, recasting progressivism in the eyes of the nation, declaring that the country has opted for a fundamentally new philosophical and ideological course.
Ross Douthat suggests that this is premature. Diverse organizations are vulnerable to fracturing, and we don’t quite know the policy effects of Obama’s presidency.
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.
He also suggests that the weakness of the Republican party has been exaggerated.
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.
Reagan passed one test which Obama had yet to face, when his successor, George HW Bush became the first Republican since Herbert Hoover sixty years to follow a two term Republican president. That 40 state victory, coming in the heels of Reagan’s 49 state victory, led to speculation that Republicans had a permanent lock on the White House, just as Democrats had a lock on the House of Representatives.
Although Republican dominance of the White House didn’t start with Reagan. Depending on how you look at it, it started with either Eisenhower or Nixon. Eisenhower had two landslide victories after Democrats held the White House for five terms. After winning a three way election with 43.2%, Nixon went on to a landslide 49 state victory, helped as he was by McGovern. He resigned in disgrace, but his successor lost a close election.
Historians can easily decide that Democratic dominance of the White House started with Clinton. And there are some similarities between him and Nixon. After winning a three way election with 43%, Clinton went on to become the first Democrat elected to a second full term since FDR. He was caught in a sex scandal, but his Veep lost a close election. The next Democratic presidential candidate lost a close election. As Nixon was soon followed by Reagan, Clinton was followed by Obama.
But it hasn’t been clear that Obama will have the victories Reagan did. Although the potential exists. He he has to lead the party to victory. The 2016 election may determine if Obama is the liberal Reagan. In the generations since FDR and Truman, Reagan’s been the only president to hold the white house for more than two terms.
He also has to change the Republicans. EJ Dionne considered how Reagan changed the Democrats.
Reagan forced Democrats to realize they wouldn’t keep winning simply by invoking FDR’s legacy. Paradoxically, in following Reagan’s political lead, Obama is setting out to prove that the Reagan era is finally over.
Reaganism’s ascendance wasn’t sealed by his re-election, let alone his first inaugural: It took 1988 to consolidate the rightward shift and 1994 to really ratify it. For now, Obama still awaits his George H.W. Bush (hey, Biden!) and his Newt Gingrich — and for that matter, he awaits his Clinton, because there’s a sense in which declarations of victory are less telling than statements of surrender. The moment when you knew that the age of Reagan would be remembered as a lasting political epoch didn’t come when Reagan declared that government is the problem in 1980; it came sixteen years later, when a Democratic president felt the need to open his re-election campaign with the Reagan-esque promise that “the era of big government is over.” In the same way, the clearest vindication of Obama’s presidency, if such a vindication comes, will probably take the form of a Republican president who sounds uncannily (if reluctantly) like him.
If President Christie gives a speech on how the Republicans must be the party of smart government, Obama would have his Clinton. But in some ways, this could be a problem for the Democrats as Clinton was arguably more successful at building a lasting coalition than Reagan, who may have been bigger than the conservative movement. Since the party out of the White House does better in midterm elections, it’s also entirely possible that the Republican revolution of 1994, was delayed by Republican dominance of the White House from 1980-1988. Since Reagan left the White House, Republicans won two close elections and lost four major elections. This isn’t necessarily a legacy that Obama would want.