Barack Obama And The Supertanker Of State
In response to my recent post on what I called Obama 2012’s rather limited ambitions, valued reader CK MacLeod wrote the following. My emphasis:
…look at “the Reagan Era” from the perspective of a committed ideological conservative – how little was changed in the way we do things, as opposed to how we talk about them. His greatest conservative achievement might have been entrenching the resistance to everything you’d like to see from [Obama] – though there are other factors involved beyond [Reagan’s] presidency. If, on the other hand, Obama’s presidency is viewed as successful, if he manages to initiate a process of re-alignment, if major initiatives undertaken during his presidency are seen to have re-shaped assumptions about the politically possible and desirable, then maybe after a generation has passed it will be possible for you to look back on his presidency as authentically transformational, and worthy of your former excitement over it.
MacLeod makes an excellent point (I’d recommend this post of his for more) and it’s one I often forget. Sometimes, it’s damn near impossible to keep from falling into the ADHD mindset of the political media — especially during election years. But when his Presidency was younger and when he spent more time talking about what he’d like to do rather than defending what he’d already done, Obama indeed spoke of his goals in implicitly longview terms. This 2-year-old column from National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein, for example, shows that this isn’t a new theme in the narrative of the 44th President:
The key here is [Obama’s] 2008 campaign assertion that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America” more than Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton did. The health care struggle suggests that Obama views changing that trajectory as the ultimate measure of a presidency’s success. His aim is to establish a long-term political direction — one centered on a more activist government that shapes and polices the market to strengthen the foundation for sustainable, broadly shared growth. Everything else — the legislative tactics, even most individual policies — is negotiable. He wants to chart the course for the supertanker, not to steer it around each wave or decide which crates are loaded into its hull.… The constant is Obama’s determination to turn the supertanker — and his Reagan-like willingness to bet his party’s future on his ability to sell the country on the ambitious course he has set.
If we look at Obama’s legacy through this porthole, rather than through the lens of a Buzzfeed slideshow or a CNN soundbite, this year’s Presidential election appears less farcical than it might. There’s a built-in media bias in favor of conventional wisdom and the status quo, and both currently happen to be generally in-line with a view of the electorate that’s more favorable to Republicans (this is a center-right country; heartland voters; god, gays, and guns, etc.) so it’s not as if an Obama win in November would immediately establish as Proven Fact the viability of a more left-wing politics in the United States. It would take some time.
But if — in descending order of likelihood — Obama does win, Obamacare survives the Supreme Court, and the economy regains something of its former luster, it’s not unlikely that, conventional wisdom being what it is, it’ll soon be considered an imperative for future Democrats to follow the Obama model. There won’t be so much talk of how Clinton proved a Democrat can only win if s/he disavows Big Government; ambitious policy like health care reform won’t be considered so radioactive (a public option might then become a standard goal of any mainstream Dem); and a generation of voters will remember how they actually quite liked that Kenyan socialist in the White House.
Now, this is a very politics-centric view of the potential future; and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t flag the possibility that electoral politics won’t tell us nearly so much about the future as will still-skyrocketing rates of inequality. It may be that Obama’s legacy will have more to do with tightening the bonds between the Democratic Party, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. Maybe an Obama victory will inaugurate an era in which the mainstream American Left gives up any pretense of caring about class, opting instead to go all in with identity politics. Obama proved that, like deficits, actually fighting inequality — rather than campaigning on it — doesn’t matter.
But the looming expiration in 2013 of a bevy of tax cuts (which I imagine a reelected Obama would find acceptable if not downright desirable) has me thinking the latter scenario to be less likely. If for no other reason than his sweeping, gargantuan ambition, I buy the theory that Obama conceives of his Presidency in the epochal terms outlined above. He’s captaining a supertanker; and while he can’t completely — or even significantly — steer it from its current trajectory, he may be able to lay down the principles through which future captains can. But he can’t do this if, come 2013, his hands aren’t still on the steering wheel.