Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama, Reagan, and the Triumph of Iterative Democracy

President Obama begins his second term with modestly strong public approval, some recent policy wins to complement the impressive political victory he scored last November, and an almost palpable sense that he's mastered the levers of presidential power--that, as I once put it, he's learned to drive the fastest and highest-performing car on the track. For a right-wing opposition that made such an enormous emotional (as well as financial) investment in his defeat, this all has been tough to take.

The operatic excesses of reactionary despair is usually catnip to me, but this piece by right-wing journalist Matthew Continetti is too far off-base analytically to truly enjoy:
On the eve of his second inauguration, we ought to face the unpleasant fact that Obama will be remembered as a president of achievement and consequence. It does not matter if, like I do, you think those achievements are horrible and that their consequences will be worse. Obama’s reversal of the Reagan revolution is here. 
What was the Reagan revolution? It was lower taxes on the wealthy, more money for the Defense Department, a genuine if somewhat easy-going cultural conservatism, and the rhetorical promotion of business, private initiative, and American nationalism. Presidents Bush and Clinton and Bush fussed with the rhetoric—all three of them used language that was more communitarian than Reagan’s—and tinkered around the edges of tax and spending policy. Bush I raised taxes, Clinton imposed work requirements on welfare, and Bush II oversaw an additional Medicare entitlement, but Reagan’s general approach remained the dominant one. 
This is something Obama understood. He wrote critically of Reagan in his first book. But, by his 2008 campaign for the presidency, he had developed something of an appreciation for our fortieth president. It soon became clear that Obama sought to be more like Reagan than Reagan’s successors had been—but in a way that would negate those aspects of Reagan’s legacy that liberals found distasteful. Obama sought to be the anti-Reagan, sought to restore the liberal consensus that prevailed in Washington prior to January 1981. He was not a revolutionary. He was a counterrevolutionary.
The perversely impressive thing here is that he not only gets wrong the evilly ascendant Obama; he badly mischaracterizes the now overthrown St. Reagan.

Unless I'm forgetting something, Reagan didn't dismantle the welfare state: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and even Aid to Families with Dependent Children all persisted without serious challenge during his two terms, and in fact he championed and expanded elements of the social safety net such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is now likely more favored by liberals than conservatives. Likewise, the military buildup associated with Reagan really began under Jimmy Carter, who shifted to a hard line following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow among other measures.  Both presidents sat squarely within the bipartisan Cold War-era consensus, from which the biggest deviant probably was Nixon.

Obama, then, is no more counterrevolutionary to Reagan than Reagan was to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Reagan's biggest domestic policy accomplishments were reducing tax rates, which was not a difficult or controversial political fight, and promoting a culture of deregulation (where, again, his policies represented less a break with Carter's than an intensification). But he wasn't an absolutist on these questions; for instance, taxes rose in seven of his eight years in office. Indeed, one of my favorite pieces of political history is a ten year-old Washington Monthly story by Josh Green titled "Reagan's Liberal Legacy":
A sober review of Reagan's presidency doesn't yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today. Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control. His assault on entitlements never materialized; instead he saved Social Security in 1983. And he repeatedly ignored the fundamental conservative dogma that taxes should never be raised.
None of which is to say that Reagan wasn't, in Green's words, "one of the most conservative presidents in U.S. history [who] will certainly be remembered as such." But he didn't start from a blank slate, nor was he operating in a political vacuum: Democrats (albeit of a considerably less liberal flavor than was the case twenty years earlier or twenty-five years later) controlled the House during the entirety of his tenure, and the Senate for part of it. Similarly, it's not at all hard to imagine future analysts or historians on the center-right offering a parallel contrarian take on Obama's presidency: massive increase in utilization of drone strikes, biggest tax cut in American history, enormous expansion of private health insurance, et cetera.

As Continetti implicitly admits, Reagan's impact was more tonal and attitudinal than anything else. Institutions that had lost popular currency during the '60s and '70s--the military, business leaders--suddenly had a champion in the president, who also happened to be one of the most charismatic and compelling individuals alive. His greatest impact was to change minds in a way that further overt expansion of the welfare state would become at least temporarily impossible; to push the center of public opinion to the right.

Just as Reagan at most moderated some of the effects of New Deal/Great Society governance, Obama really has done little more than undo some of the worst excesses--maybe "perversions" is a better word--of Reagan's legacy. Tax rates are nowhere near what they were in 1981; military spending remains much higher than during the Cold War; discretionary domestic spending is still on its long-term downward trajectory; we have not re-regulated in any meaningful way. If you believe, as I do, that George W. Bush's presidency represented Reagan's worst instincts and ideas taken to a comical extreme, and that the overarching policy narrative of Obama's first term was the cleanup of selected Bush-era messes, then perhaps we're about back to where we were in 2000.

I would argue that two aspects of Obama's presidency do merit the "revolutionary" descriptor. He passed healthcare reform, succeeding where Bill Clinton could not (albeit with something close to the plan that the Republicans of Clinton's era claimed to support), and he helped abet the great strides made toward full civil rights for gay Americans. I think he deserves enormous credit for the first accomplishment, which ultimately came down to an act of political will that fired the courage of Democrats who cast politically painful votes to make it happen. But this long stride toward universal health care involves not a massive new government program, but rather a very large expansion of current models and structures: progressive ends through conservative means.

On the second, he showed more caution than courage, but again this was politically if not morally the right move to make. The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell largely was his doing, and his "evolution" on marriage equality was no less impactful for how transparent it was. Even so, he served and supported a liberalizing social trend rather than creating or truly driving it. In doing so, he made unlikely but appropriate common cause with that faction of the Republican Party that applies its rhetoric about limited government and federalism to gay rights, including former vice-president Dick Cheney and uber-funder David Koch. My strong hunch is that both those men would claim Reagan, that champion of individual liberties, as a philosophical comrade on this issue.

Which maybe brings us all the way back around. Reagan's legacy was less a counter to than a correction of what FDR and LBJ did, both in terms of his policies and where he left the political center of the country. Obama likewise has less "ended" the Age of Reagan than modified and moderated it in a way more aligned to the liberal tradition from which he comes.

His bruised feelings and gross exaggerations aside, Continetti more or less manages to stick the landing:
[T]he generation of conservatives and Republicans who return one day to power will be forced to reckon with the consequences of the Obama revolution, just as a generation of defeated liberals were forced to confront and in some cases accept the revolution of Ronald Reagan."
I'm just not sure he grasps that this is how it's supposed to work. Among our stated Constitutional goals is "a more perfect union." When the system works well, it features opposing factions that peaceably transfer power and show a healthy respect for both small-d democratic will and the prerogatives of policy precedent. All our most successful presidents have left legacies similar to what he claims for Reagan and posits for Obama. It isn't yet clear to me that Obama will match Reagan's success in permanently shifting the center of political opinion in his preferred direction, but that will be the biggest question of the second term.

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