Washington – President Barack Obama’s dream of being a historically transformational figure like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan may be slipping from his grasp.
To be sure, he’s already made one lasting mark that changed the country’s course — his election as the first African-American president broke a centuries-old racial barrier.
He also could break through with bold new initiatives that change the course of history, as Richard Nixon did late in his first term when he opened U.S. relations with communist China.
However, Obama’s quest to usher in a new liberal era — one with major new policies and a growing Democratic voter majority punctuating a shift away from the conservative era that Reagan ushered in — is in trouble and may be disintegrating.
Health care? His best hope now is a Senate plan that would leave millions still uninsured, dashing his promise of universal health care, and even that may already be out of reach.
Legislation to fight global warming? Stalled in the Senate.
Forging peace in the Middle East? Hasn’t been able to get the region’s adversaries in the same room, let alone close to agreement.
Ending venomous partisanship? Washington is more polarized than ever.
Leading his party to an enduring majority? Right now, it’s heading in the other direction.
“He’s tried, but to this point, he’s failed,” said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University. “He got things done, but they’re not the historic things that are transformational.”
Obama himself set the bar higher than merely getting things done. He didn’t want an “in-box” presidency that simply reacted to problems, nor did he want to ride to re-election on popular but small measures.
During the campaign, for example, he spoke admiringly of Reagan for having such a transformational impact, even if he disagreed with Reagan’s course.
“Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said in January 2008. “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”
When Obama spoke about expanding access to health care, he vowed to finish what Democrats since Harry Truman had tried to do.
In one speech, he invoked the memory of Lyndon Johnson signing Medicare into law, with Truman at his side. “History shapes men,” he recalled Johnson saying that day in 1965, “but it is a necessary faith of leadership that men can help shape history.”
In another speech, Obama signaled that he’d be such a leader. “I don’t want to wake up four years from now,” he said in 2007, “and find out that millions of Americans still lack health care.”
Yet the Senate version of health care legislation that Obama has endorsed would leave 23 million without insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. With the Democrats’ loss of their 60th Senate vote, and with it their filibuster-proof majority, it’s unlikely that even this measure can get through now even if Obama and the Senate could get the House of Representatives to go along, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said won’t happen.
How did Obama lose the chance, so far at least, to enact the history-changing parts of his agenda after he won the biggest popular majority of any Democrat since Johnson in 1964 and came to office with big Democratic majorities in Congress?
He faced three main problems:
- The recession forced him to spend time and political capital on a stimulus plan that may have reduced job losses, but didn’t stop them.
- A year-long fight over health care, with buyoffs for select lawmakers, looked like politics as usual, scared Americans already skeptical about a government racing deeper into debt and produced no results.
- Obama misread the political landscape at home and abroad and overestimated his ability to bend people his way.
Reagan, by comparison, swept into office with a broad national appetite for cutting taxes — a grassroots tax rebellion had started earlier in California — and for a big buildup in defense spending; Democrat Jimmy Carter already had started one.
With that mandate and a less polarized Congress, Reagan focused on his core objectives and was able quickly to push through the tax and defense policies that helped shape his presidency and transform the country’s politics.
Johnson also moved quickly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and his landslide 1964 victory to enact what he called the Great Society — a sweeping expansion of civil rights legislation, coupled with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the greatest expansion of government social welfare since FDR.
“Obama in the end didn’t have that luxury,” said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “The economy was such a mess, it derailed the other domestic items on his agenda. And he had to use a lot of domestic political capital on the stimulus. Now he’s kind of used up his window.”
Whether Obama’s $787 billion package of tax cuts and spending stopped the economy from getting worse is hotly debated. However, it hasn’t transformed the country in the way that Reagan turned a historic tide against big government, nor did it launch a new era of government intervention into the economy comparable to Roosevelt’s.
Much of the stimulus spending is on one-time infrastructure projects such as road and bridge repairs rather than a big change in government’s role in society. Also, Obama’s tax cuts are temporary; Obama now proposes to extend them one more year.
“I wouldn’t call it transformative because it’s short-term,” said Edwards. “It’s ephemeral and it’s designed to be ephemeral. And, there’s no support for doing it again.”
Further hurting his prospects, Obama’s stimulus, along with bank bailouts enacted under former President George W. Bush, added to the national debt and helped create new grassroots pressure against more government spending.
What’s more, by reaching for so much in a bid to be a modern-day Reagan or Roosevelt, Obama may have risked ending up more like a latter-day Carter, with a Democratic Congress unwilling to follow him.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel thought the recession created a broad but temporary opportunity to enact the entire Democratic agenda, and he helped push Democrats from swing congressional districts to vote for ambitious health care and global warming proposals, only to see them watered down or left to die in the Senate.
“If he doesn’t get significant health care reform, it’s going to be very difficult to accomplish much domestically in the remaining three years of his term,” said Richard Shenkman, an historian at George Mason University in Virginia.
“He’ll have the Carter problem. Members of Congress will have taken very hard votes on this, and if there’s no payoff, they’re going to look out for themselves and abandon him and his leadership.”
Ultimately, Shenkman and others said, it’s too early to say for certain whether Obama will become a transformational leader. They all agreed, however, that it looks less likely today than it did a year ago.
Said Shenkman: “If I were making bets at this point, aside from his election, I would very much doubt that he’s going to be much of a transformative figure.”