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Obama’s Big and Quiet Transformation

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

And Obama? He strives to be the man in the middle, the voice of reason, the credible “grown-up in the room,” to revive a phrase from his first term that his spinmeisters happily put into storage after the 2011 debt-ceiling fiasco. The deal agreed to on January 1 was characteristic of Obama through and through: disappointing to his own backers in the Washington–New York liberal establishment, many of whom wanted him to take the country over the cliff, where (so it was believed) he’d have had more leverage over the Republicans. But we should know by now that Obama is just not the cliff-diving type.

Obama could have pushed the country over the cliff and forced the GOP to swallow a deal while the financial markets collapsed. After all, the cliff negotiations represented his moment of maximum political capital. In spite of all the money that the Republicans threw at him before the November election, hundreds of millions of loosely regulated dollars, all those false claims about him made by Mitt Romney’s campaign, the president won reelection, and as it turns out won rather handily.2 If it can be said that one claim or position was central to his campaign, it was that he wanted to raise taxes on household dollars earned above $250,000. Romney was equally unambiguous in his opposition to that policy. The American voters made their feelings on the matter clear. In addition to that, he had room to speak the truth now. Unlike most of the politicians dancing along the cliff’s edge, Obama need never face the voters again.

So he could have played roulette, refusing to compromise, but that just isn’t who he is. He doesn’t want to crush the opposition. He’d much rather reason with it and be the president who proved the system could still work as intended. In my view, the deal he struck was not a bad one at all, despite the complaints of some liberals.3 First and foremost, he got a tax increase for the well-to-do. Grover Norquist insisted for technical reasons that Republicans voting for the deal were not in violation of his now famous pledge, but the fact is that high-end tax rates are increasing. The breaking of that line, whether it rests at $250,000 or $450,000, is a very big deal.

Second, to have made it through the cliff deadline without any cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is a victory. Obama put a Social Security benefit cut on the negotiating table in mid-December, in the form of indexing benefits to the so-called “chained consumer price index,” which would reduce monthly checks for those in their eighties and nineties especially. To the great surprise of many, even Nancy Pelosi endorsed this policy. But then negotiations collapsed, and John Boehner endured his humiliation over “Plan B,” so it was moot. But Republicans tried to revive the chained CPI, insisting for a few hours on New Year’s Eve that it be part of any deal, and then backing off after seeing that it would go nowhere.

The extension of unemployment benefits for a year was a big win, especially because Republicans demanded no “offset” in spending cuts to cover its $30 billion cost. This is remarkable because Republicans have always demanded offsets in these situations, citing deficit considerations (it’s always when Democrats are trying to do things for poor people that Republicans suddenly get concerned about the deficit). On the downside, the end of the 2 percent payroll tax holiday takes away the only form of stimulus Obama was able to get Congress to agree to. But because the deal included no language on the debt ceiling, and because it pushed the beginning of the sequestration cuts back just two months, all of these gains could prove ephemeral.

Obama set a hideous precedent in 2011 by agreeing to GOP demands that spending be cut by the same amount Congress would vote to increase the debt limit. In his New Year’s night remarks after the House vote, he took a much sterner line, emphasizing with his concluding point that he won’t negotiate over the debt limit: “While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they’ve passed.” If Congress refuses to raise the debt limit and pay those bills, he said, the consequences could be “catastrophic.”

Obama and other Democrats insist they will not negotiate on the debt limit this time. If they stick to that position, they will force a showdown sometime in March that will be at least political, and maybe constitutional. If the Republicans win, forcing Obama to agree to deep cuts in domestic and entitlement programs in exchange for their votes to raise the debt limit, he may be weakened for the rest of his term—and the economy could well suffer from the austerity such a victory would impose. If the Republicans cave and Obama triumphs, many possibilities open up, potentially.

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.4

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.

Gun control, immigration, and climate change are the remaining big domestic items on the president’s agenda. The clock ticks. Since the incumbent president’s party rarely gains seats in the sixth year of that president’s term, he may have only two years, not four, to try to tackle these issues. With the possible exception of immigration, he could well be stymied on every one of those. The debt-and-spending fight represents his best opportunity to overpower the Republicans and become the kind of president he wants to become. But he’ll have to develop more taste for combat than compromise.

  1. 2

    In addition to Obama’s 332–206 electoral college wipeout, his popular vote margin has been steadily increasing as states complete their official canvasses. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report has been tracking this. Obama’s margin has increased from 2.3 percent (50.4 percent to 48.1 percent) to 3.8 percent (51 percent to 47.2 percent), in part because so many ballots of Obama voters were challenged. The irony of Romney finishing at 47 percent has not been lost on those who recall his night at Boca Raton. 

  2. 3

    The Huffington Post homepage on New Year’s morning, after the Senate vote, reflected this view, including the phrases: “So Long, Leverage”; “Did O Blow It?”; “Worst of All Worlds”; “Bargained Incompetently”; and a critical quote from Paul Krugman. 

  3. 4

    Google “Rachel Maddow Obama accomplishments November 5” and you will be led to the relevant video excerpts. 

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