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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Tomasky's latest in NYRB

Continuing the NYRB theme (one of the few periodicals I still read in paper), Michael Tomasky's latest raises an interesting point.

I'll try and block quote the section I found most thought-provoking.
To think back over Obama’s tenure is to be struck by a paradox that has, I think, little precedent. Obama’s is the most transformational presidency in modern history, but it simply doesn’t feel that way. Recall the famous words he spoke to a Nevada newspaper in January 2008 when he declared that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that…Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Aside from trying to throw then-opponent Hillary Clinton off her stride a bit, Obama clearly meant to be saying that he would be changing history as Reagan did.

His tenure so far hasn’t been much like Reagan’s at all. In large part this is because Reagan’s ascension represented the rise to the very apex of power of a relatively new force, the “movement conservatism” that first sprang to life in the mid-1950s. Before Reagan, that brand of conservatism had been consigned to the barely acceptable fringes of Washington, given voice by a few second-tier legislators (Roman Hruska of Nebraska, for example) and cranky columnists (James J. Kilpatrick). Reagan altered Washington’s chemistry in a vast number of ways, from questions of domestic and foreign policy to seating arrangements in Georgetown society. The many cumulative billions from rich conservatives that helped build conservative think tanks and media outlets such as Fox News started changing the balance of power in Washington as well during Reagan’s term.

Obama has not presided over that kind of political and cultural change, and it’s hard to see how he will. And yet, his record of accomplishments in both the policy and political realms is formidable. He passed near-universal health care and sweeping financial regulation. He ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on military service. He was the first president to endorse same-sex marriage (which I predicted in these pages—wrongly, I’m happy to note—might prove costly at the polls). The night before the election, Rachel Maddow devoted the first ten or so minutes of her MSNBC program to listing Obama’s policy achievements. It was a staggering list.

The political accomplishments are notable as well. Bear in mind that many conservatives (and not a few liberals) believed that 2008 had to be unique, and that Obama’s aberrational triumph was made possible only by a storm of events that conspired to do in the Republicans—the financial meltdown, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, the media’s supposed lionization of Obama, and so on. Surely, conservatives thought, that 2008 coalition was a fluke; America will never reelect a man such as this.

The 2008 coalition, it turned out, was no fluke. If anything, it grew, enabling Obama to become the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to carry more than 50 percent of the vote twice (Bill Clinton didn’t hit 50 either time). Even Karl Rove and Dick Morris will now have to accept that the white vote is aging and shrinking, the white working-class vote is disappearing, and the Latino and African-American voting blocs will both grow steadily. They and their ideological allies will also have to accept what a different country this is from the one they’d wish it to be. When voters in three states pass same-sex marriage referenda, and voters in two other states approve the legal use of recreational marijuana, a cultural switch of some sort has been flipped.

Yet for all that change, the past four years haven’t felt like a change in historical direction. It doesn’t feel like transformation because every single victory has been so hard won, so emotionally exhausting, and in some cases so compromised that it becomes difficult to imagine them as pieces of a vast puzzle that is changing the course of history. The health bill left many liberals unhappy, and Dodd-Frank, say most experts, will not prevent another financial meltdown.

But it could be that this is what transformation often feels like. Perhaps this is what the New Deal felt like; after all, liberals were constantly frustrated with Roosevelt in precisely the same ways today’s liberals wish more from Obama. Shortly into his second term, Roosevelt riled the left by wholeheartedly embracing deficit reduction. Obama has only halfheartedly embraced it, which is progress.

Emphasis mine. I've had this thought myself, a few times. A friend of mine likes to use the frog in boiling water analogy. His politics are much different than mine, but I wonder if that works for both sides. For liberals, the problem (or maybe better, focus) has been what Obama has failed to do. And he's failed on some big issues (civil liberties, most notably).

But when he's won, he has moved the goalposts in significant ways. It's hard to imagine the Congress repealing many aspects of Obamacare. The one very unpopular part, the individual mandate, only exists because without it, the popular parts can't be made to work. I think that the Supreme Court's shaky endorsement of the individual mandate was one of the biggest deals in American public policy in my lifetime.

It's funny, but I think that conservatives get this in a way that liberals do not. For all the hyperbole in the "European socialism" charges, Obama has, in four years, been a transformational leader. I am under no illusions that the next four years will be comparable. Second terms are usually not. (Here I think Reagan is a good comparison. Other than arms control and the 1986 tax reform, the latter of which was largely Hill-driven, his second term was largely a disappointment to conservatives. Indeed, they mostly opposed the arms control, so maybe disappointment is too mild?) But his re-election means that his legacy will be more difficult to un-do. Indeed, Bill O'Reilly may be right (I said that!) that the United States is a different country after the 2012 election.

Anyway, I block quoted the best part, but the whole thing is worth a read. And the current issue has some other solid pieces, too.

This post was edited several times (additions only).


At 11:55 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Yeah, I agree. The one thing I'd add is the economy, which explains both the lack of euphoria on the left and Obama's diminished margin of victory in 2012. No one feels like doing any victory dances when the recovery is going so slowly and the GOP is putting up massive resistance at every turn. But that doesn't dim the underlying reality, which is that the last four years have been the best and most transformative that liberals have had since FDR. (LBJ's transformations were bigger, but for both better and worse.)

At 6:00 AM, Blogger Querist said...

For the uninitiated, is there any more background to the phrase "seating arrangements in Georgetown society" than the natural tendency for those associated with a new administration to be more sought after as dinner guests?


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