Was Obama The Change Or Not?

History offers some insights about two-term presidents. Where does Barack Obama fit?

In 2008, Barack Obama ran for office on the slogan of “change we can believe in.” Seven years later, it’s time to ask, “Was Obama the change or not?”

Recent history offers some insights about the roles that presidents play in shaping the political direction of the country. Between the Great Depression and 2008, just two presidents effected a fundamental shift during their time in office. Here’s the basic model that explains the liberal (1932–1968) and conservative (1980–2008) eras.

(Graphic: Mario Loundermon)

1. Crisis of Confidence

Each cycle was precipitated by a crisis of public confidence. In the case of the liberal era, the Great Depression represented the most profound failure of government in American history other than the Civil War. The late 1970s preceding the conservative era, while nowhere near as bleak as the Depression, were still times of double-digit inflation, rising crime, and gasoline lines. New York City teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. The (first) federal government bailout of Chrysler exposed the rotting of the Rust Belt. The Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were harsh evidence that the world saw the U.S. as a paper tiger.

2. Standard Bearer

The crisis set the stage for the emergence of a standard bearer with a new vision and a mandate for change. By 1932, the country was ready for anything that was not more of Hoover. FDR arrived with a plan to put the country back to work, one that would give a much bigger role to the federal government. At the dawn of the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan brought the mirror opposite vision to Washington: government was the problem, not the solution. He also espoused a staunch anti-Communism that called for a military build-up and a renewed emphasis on American strength. While in a very real sense FDR and Reagan were ideological opposites, both restored a fresh sense of optimism to a weary public.

By the time the standard bearers left office, they had succeeded in getting the country back on track, earning them an enduring legacy among their political tribe. Skeptics on the other side always suspected that a cult of personality masked the darker truth of of a fraud (Reagan) or demagogue (FDR). Over time, it became clear that both Roosevelt and Reagan had understood the public’s mood in its moment of need, and consequently each had the capacity to shift the political landscape in a way that cast a very long shadow for his successors.

3. Heir Apparent

Each standard bearer was followed by an heir apparent who continued in more or less the same direction as his predecessor. The heir, of course, had the misfortune of playing after the main act left the stage. (Imagine how this burden fell on John Adams following George Washington.) Faced with the impossible task of filling the void left by the standard bearer, the heir, lacking the same charisma, brought a more down-to-earth presence to the office. Disappointment was almost inevitable.

Harry Truman was virtually unknown outside Missouri when he was plucked from the Senate for the Vice Presidency. Eighty-two days later, he found himself succeeding the only four-term president the nation would ever have. He brought World War II to a close, helped establish the United Nations, and instituted the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. Yet by 1948, with his favorability ratings in the mid-30s, he was widely expected to lose his bid for re-election. Though he went on to confound the pollsters with a come-from-behind victory, his political battles continued. Four years later, with the nation stalemated in the Korean War, he chose not to seek another term rather than go down to almost certain defeat.

George H. W. Bush faced different difficulties. After managing the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, he scored a dramatic knockout with the rapid success of U.S. forces in liberating Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, and his approval ratings briefly shot up to the highest ever recorded. Even so, the glow of victory receded nearly as quickly as it had emerged, and the public turned its mind from foreign affairs to the recession at home. The conservative base turned on him for reneging on a campaign promise—“Read my lips: no new taxes” — prompting a primary challenge from the right by Pat Buchanan during Bush’s 1992 reelection bid.

4. Midcourse Correction

The failure of the heir apparent to sustain the standard bearer’s legacy led in each case to a midcourse correction. To a certain extent, the correction can be explained as a matter of status quo fatigue as much as anything. These corrections did not lead to a fundamental change in the ideological direction of the country. In many respects, both Eisenhower and Clinton spent their entire administrations fighting on their opponents’ turf. Midcourse presidents had to be pragmatists.

Consider how each fared on tax policy. When Ike left office, the marginal rate for the highest tax bracket was 90 percent, hardly the legacy of a two-term conservative Republican. Clinton raised taxes for the highest bracket to 39.6 percent from 31 percent, an increase to be sure, but not exactly a wild-eyed liberal approach designed to soak the rich. In short, neither proposed a radical change of the rules of the game.

Clinton’s “triangulation” tactic, for which he was (and still is) roundly criticized on the left, was an adaptation to the realities of serving as a midcourse president who took office while winning just 43% of the popular vote. He wasn’t just battling a conservative Republican Congress; he was flying into the prevailing conservative winds for his entire presidency. His 1996 declaration that “the era of big government is over” was perhaps the clearest rhetorical concession to Reagan—it validated the 25 year-old premise that government was the problem.

5. Return to Glory and Overreach

After each midcourse correction, the ground stood essentially even. The Nixon-Kennedy and Gore-Bush races were the two closest in modern history, and the sitting Vice Presidents from the midcourse administrations, Nixon and Gore, both nearly succeeded. In the end, though, the winners for the history books represented a return to glory for the party of the standard bearer. Though elected by narrow margins, these presidents governed as though they possessed broad mandates for bold leadership.

This boldness made big initiatives possible but also carried the seeds of recklessness and hubris. Kennedy called for the United States to put a man on the moon within a decade, but he also stumbled in the Bay of Pigs and laid the groundwork for Johnson to expand the war in Vietnam. Johnson’s boldness in domestic affairs resulted in the Great Society, a direct descendant of the New Deal, and the expansion of civil rights. In Bush’s case, his commitment to tax cuts led some conservatives to suggest he was the true “Son of Reagan,” rather than a moderate Republican like his father.

In both cases, though, the return to glory led to an overreach featuring a war of choice (Vietnam and Iraq) and a domestic agenda that exceeded the public’s appetite for change. Johnson was well aware that his leadership on civil rights would cost his party dearly in the South. Bush’s attempts to remake the domestic landscape in his own image, most notably his attempt to reform Social Security immediately after reelection, proved dead on arrival. The political fallout from the overreach made each administration toxic within its own party during its last years in office, and marked the end of the ideological cycle.

Where Does Obama Fit?

Eight years ago this month I wrote that the 44th president of the United States might be positioned to usher in a new liberal era in American politics, and that Barack Obama was the only candidate whose rhetoric matched the potential for a transformational moment in our politics.

The earlier standard bearers, Reagan and Roosevelt, had each run for election with three things in common that had enabled them to shift the nation’s political momentum for a generation: a precipitating crisis, a vision for the role of government in resolving the crisis, and the charisma to sell the vision.

In December 2007 it wasn’t clear to most Americans that we were headed into a full-blown economic meltdown, though some savvy investors already saw the writing on the wall. And Barack Obama’s path to the Democratic nomination was far from a sure thing.

Ten months later, after the Lehman Brothers domino tipped the economy into a tailspin, the crisis part was unmistakable. Candidate Obama’s charisma had helped pole-vault him from long shot to the Democratic nomination. His vision — “Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves” — was a departure from the conservative stance on government that had framed the issue for the past generation. The conditions were ripe for an Obama victory.

I am the first to admit this may just have been a lucky guess.

7 Years Later: Standard Bearer or Pragmatist?

To begin putting Obama’s presidency in perspective, it is worth looking at the gap between the liberal and conservative cycles. What happened in 1968?

Richard Nixon assumed the presidency at a crisis point in public confidence brought about by the Vietnam War and the broader social unrest of the times, but the economy was not in free fall. He brought a midcourse president’s pragmatism to the office rather than a new narrative—he established the Environmental Protection Agency, took the U.S. off the gold standard, and set wage and price controls. He was no Barry Goldwater, a prophet in the wilderness who energized a tiny but vocal movement of conservatives in 1964. As for his lack of charisma, well, 1960 had shown that Nixon was no Jack Kennedy. And, oh yes, he resigned in disgrace, throwing the Republican party into disarray in 1976. It took until 1980 for a charismatic conservative to bring the Goldwater vision out of the wilderness and into the mainstream.

Has Obama has governed as a standard bearer like Reagan, or a pragmatist like Nixon? One thing is clear about standard bearers: they drive their political opposition insane. In this regard, Obama is off the charts. To conservatives, he has been a radical who forced America to accept health care reform, banking oversight, environmental regulations, higher taxes on the rich, and diplomatic accommodations with sworn enemies Cuba and Iran. On the international front, they see Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan as nothing short of a disastrous weakening of America’s global standing, one that has resulted in instability in the Middle East and renewed adventurism by Russia.

The President’s supporters would make the opposite case for his accomplishments. He pulled the economy from the depths with a stimulus package passed in his first month in office and set it on a path toward the longest economic expansion on record, cutting the unemployment rate in half in the process. He gave the U.S. auto industry a new lease on life. He passed health care reform, a goal that had eluded Democratic presidents for decades. He got tougher oversight of the financial sector and better protections for consumers. He broke the logjam on Cuba and reached a deal to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club. He took greater action than any previous president on climate change, clean energy, and LGBT rights—all signs of a fundamentally new direction.

The Obama era has also been defined by cultural shifts on issues that haven’t been shaped primarily by big presidential initiatives, such as criminal justice reform, marriage equality, and marijuana legalization. Black Lives Matter activists are holding political leaders accountable for violence against black Americans in a way that represents a tidal change from the conservative era. The national dialogue about inequality, sparked by the Occupy movement’s framing of the issue of the 99%, has forced politicians of all stripes to reckon with the growing gap between the rich and the rest, rather than arguing about how big the next tax cut should be.

As much as anything, the sense that the economic recovery has benefited the wealthy at the expense of everyone else helps explain why so few Americans feel that happy days are here again. Obama’s actions may have helped bring us out of the depths of the recession, but it hasn’t won him many fans. His approval rating hovers just below 50 percent. To many on the left who are currently feeling the Bern, Obama has failed to speak truth to power. He ceded health care reform by taking single payer and drug price negotiations off the table before the debate began. He refused to break up the big banks or lock up their leaders for the recklessness and chicanery that led to the economic collapse of 2008 and the pain that followed for millions of Americans. He blinked in the 2011 default crisis negotiations with Congress. From this perspective, Obama looks like a cautious pragmatist.

And yet Obama has led much as he said he would at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. “You were the change,” he told the crowd, downplaying his own significance. He exhorted his supporters to stay engaged: “…if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible, well, change will not happen….Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.”

His words brought to mind the apocryphal story of FDR meeting with socialist activists after his election in 1932: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

That has been Obama’s leadership style. On a range of issues where he ultimately secured a liberal victory—quashing the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and commuting sentences for drug offenses—his supporters made him do it.

But there has also been a quiet steadiness to his principles. Obama’s approach has not been punitive. He rejected out of hand the question of investigating former Bush administration officials for their handling of Iraq. He did not go after bad bankers. There is a good, principled case to be made that his distaste for prosecutorial politics led to a failure to hold wrongdoers accountable. But even in some of his most deeply unsatisfying political compromises, he did not triangulate in his reasoning. When signing the Dodd-Frank Act, which was intended to prevent a replay of the financial sector abuses that led to calamity in 2008, he did not begin by accepting the go-go ’90s premise that what was good for Goldman Sachs was good for the United States. No-Drama Obama didn’t say it with a bang, but the era of big conservatism was over.

Obama has been a reluctant standard bearer. He has not been a happy warrior who relished the battles, like FDR or Reagan. But the game has changed under his leadership.

The Choice in 2016

Which leads back to the question of how most voters will view their decision in 2016. One of the truisms of professional politics is that there are only two kinds of elections: “stay the course,” or “time for a change.” Judging solely by the passion of the conservative and liberal voices dominating the media a month before the first primary votes are cast, it would be easy to believe this will be a change election. And more Americans are paying attention to the candidates this time around than eight years ago.

But pre-primary noise isn’t always a good gauge for divining the voters’ eventual intentions. At this time in 2011, Newt Gingrich held a fairly commanding lead in the Republican field, and in 2003 Howard Dean led the Democratic pack.

If the current noise proves to be just that, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former Secretary of State, has all the trappings of an heir apparent. Like George H.W. Bush in 1988, she enters the race with significant experience and a reputation for competence over charisma. Even her official campaign bio uses the words “fight” or “fighting” three times, making her sound more like “Give ‘em Hell” Harry Truman, another heir apparent, than a visionary. There is no guarantee she will succeed in securing the Democratic nomination, but her advantages are formidable.

The voters’ decisions next fall will in large part be a referendum on the direction Barack Obama has set over the past eight years. If the limitations of his accomplishments leave lots of Americans feeling pessimistic about their prospects in a new era of liberalism, the Republicans will have the advantage. If the public decides it’s better to continue on the current path than to roll the dice, Hillary Clinton will be well-positioned to win the biggest political fight of her life.

(This version was last edited on January 12, 2016.)

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