Monday, March 1, 2010

Will There Be An Obama Era?

A Political Reality:

American political history, on the national level, contains various periods in which one party or another reigns supreme, both in holding control over the levers of governmental power and in determining the ideological premises from which the major issues of the day are discussed. These eras are usually (though not always) defined by the leadership of a single president, whose influence lasts long after he has left power.

Thus far we have had the Federalist Era (1789-1800, defined by George Washington), the Jeffersonian Era (1800-1828, defined by Thomas Jefferson), the Jacksonian Era (1828-1860, defined by Andrew Jackson), the Gilded Era (1860-1901, defined by the absence of strong executive leadership and the dominance of a conservative Congress), the Progressive Era (1901-1920, defined by Theodore Roosevelt), the Second Gilded Era (1920-1932, defined again by the absence of strong executive leadership and the dominance of a conservative Congress), the Roosevelt Era (1932-1980, defined by Franklin Roosevelt), and the Reagan Era (1980 to either 2008 or the present, depending on how Barack Obama performs; defined by Ronald Reagan).

The Question:

Could Barack Obama's presidency usher in a new political era? The answer can be better understand by looking at the last two periods in American political history.

The Roosevelt Era:

From 1932 to 1980, the Democratic Party was the dominant one in the United States, and the ideology advocated by its liberal wing prevailed over our nation's political discourse. This was the case for three reasons:

1) When the Great Depression began in 1929, a Republican named Herbert Hoover was serving as our president. Rightly or wrongly, his conservative economic policies were blamed for causing and/or exacerbating the hardships of that crisis, so much so that Democrats gained control of Congress in the midterm elections of 1930 and easily defeated Hoover during the presidential campaign of 1932 (58% to 41%).
2) The new Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, had an instinctive understanding of two political realities:
i. The American people care less about ideology than they do about results.
ii. To the extent that the American people ARE concerned with ideology, it is tone rather than substance that is likely to sway them. More specifically, because Americans define their national identity by its relationship to two libertarian documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States) and to the story of our national conception (the war for independence against Great Britain), the tone that Americans find most compelling is that of populism (defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as "a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people").
As a result of this knowledge, President Roosevelt (a) launched a series of policies, known as the New Deal, that significantly ameliorated the suffering being endured by Americans during the Great Depression and (b) framed his administration as being a bulwark of the people's rights against the cupidity and incompetence of elitist Republican adversaries. Because Roosevelt found that the most effective way of accomplishing these goals was through an ideologically liberal approach - a combination of the rhetoric of Andrew Jackson with the policy objectives of Theodore Roosevelt - this was the tack he ultimately took.
3) Because of the popularity of Franklin Roosevelt's policies and political image - both of them associated with populism - a majority of Democrats throughout the nation identified themselves with his political brand, with those who refrained from doing so either defecting to the Republican Party or being actively muscled out by Roosevelt and the national organization. By the time Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936, he was able to win the electoral votes of all but two states (Maine and Vermont), as well as 60% of the popular vote.

As a result of these three factors, the Democratic Party - now a coalition of diverse ethnic, regional, and ideological groups, all held together by a belief in Franklin Roosevelt's style of economic populism - dominated American political life for the next forty-eight years, controlling the White House for forty of them and Congress for forty-four.
The Reagan Era:
Since 1980, American politics has been dominated by the Republican Party and the ideology advocated by its conservative wing. This has been the case for four reasons:
1) Between 1977 and 1981, during the presidency of a Democrat named Jimmy Carter, a host of economic problems (inflation, a gas shortage) and foreign policy debacles (the Iranian hostage crisis) plagued America. Rightly or wrongly, President Carter was perceived as possessing a dithering, incompetent leadership style that both caused new problems and worsened existing ones. Very soon, Carter had become a pariah.
That said, Carter's growing unpopularity did not initially seem to threaten the Democratic Party's national dominance. While Democrats did lose some seats in the midterm elections of 1978, they still managed to retain strong control over both houses of Congress. What's more, the Republican presidential nominee in 1980 was Ronald Reagan, an ex-movie star and former governor of California whose extreme right-wing views were viewed with suspicion because they ran against the grain of the FDR-established liberal philosophy that Americans had supported for nearly half a century. As a result, even though Carter received the same percentage of popular votes in 1980 as Herbert Hoover had picked up in 1932 (41%), the overwhelming anti-Carter vote was split between Ronald Reagan (51%) and supporters of John Anderson (7%), a third-party candidate who positioned himself as a moderate alternative to the incompetent Carter and the radical Reagan. Likewise, although the Republicans gained control of the Senate by a small majority, they had still failed to take over the House of Representatives. In short, although Carter had been rejected in 1980 in the same way that Hoover had been in 1932, Reagan and the Republicans had not yet been embraced, much as Roosevelt and the Democrats had been. A new Republican era was not a given.
2) The reasons for this could be traced back to the presidential election of 1976, during which President Gerald Ford, a moderate Republican, found himself viciously opposed for his own party's nomination by the radical conservatives, led by former California governor Ronald Reagan. Although Ford ultimately beat Reagan, he only managed to do so by the closest of margins; as a result, when he lost in the general election to Jimmy Carter, the right-wing zealots who championed Reagan took control of the party and used their power to aggressively purge as many moderates as they could from the organization (including John Anderson, who at that time was a ten-term congressman from northern Illinois).
The upshot of this was that the radical right had transformed the Republican Party into an extraordinarily efficient machine for pursuing their ideological goals, most importantly Reagan's presidential nomination in 1980; the downside was that, because Americans had grown accustomed to the liberal ideas that had prevailed for more than four decades, the new Republican Party was widely viewed with suspicion by. Indeed, had Reagan been running against the Democrats is a normal election year, there was good reason to believe he would have been decisively defeated; the last time the radical right conquered the Republicans and nominated its candidate for president, the man they chose - Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona - was defeated by the Democratic candidate, President Lyndon Johnson, by the largest popular vote margin in American history (61% to 38%). In 1980, however, Ronald Reagan and the radicals were beneficiaries of good luck - because Jimmy Carter was an unusually unpopular president, his inevitable defeat became, by default, their gain.
3) Reagan's good luck did not end there. Technically speaking, the policies he pursued caused far more harm than good - his disempowering of labor unions, slashing of social welfare programs, and deregulation of big business caused an increase in unemployment, a disproportionate concentration of wealth in the hands of America's richest 1%, and a concurrent decline in the average standard of living for working class Americans; his massive tax cuts for the wealthy and unprecedented increase in military spending caused the budget deficit to explode; and his weakening of laws that monitored Wall Street and banks (perpetuated by his three successors) helped sow for the economic crash of 2008. Yet despite this, by 1983 the economy began to recover, thanks mainly to a technological boom (personal computers, increased electronic communications), the lowering of interest rates by the Federal Reserve (which helped reduce inflation), and the transient benefits of Reagan's deregulatory policies toward big business and high finance, which led to a temporary increase in their profit margins. As a result, Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984 was extremely successful, as he managed to win the electoral votes of all but two states (Minnesota and, though not technically a state, the District of Columbia), as well as 59% of the popular vote.
4) Now the Republicans were at least poised to seize the populist mantle that had once belonged to the Democrats. Ronald Reagan and his political associates did this by brilliantly forging a coalition between:

i. The social conservatives who had been unified in a reactionary backlash against the perceived assaults by counterculture movement of the 1960s against traditional religious, nationalistic, cultural, and family values.

ii. Wealthy individuals and businesses who, along with libertarian purists, supposed a laissez-faire relationship between government and the economy.

iii. Racists who, upset at the pro-civil rights policies adopted by the Democratic party (particularly during the presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson), fled to the Republican Party as an alternative - first temporary (to Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon in 1972), and then permanently (after Reagan in 1980 and 1984).

In this way, the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan was able to cast themselves as the populist entity in American politics, as well as successfully paint the Democrats as being both elitist (on cultural issues) and power-hungry (by mischaracterizing their regulatory policies as being oppressive). As a result, they replaced the Democrats as the ascendant political organization in America's governmental and ideological life, albeit not on as dominant as that of the Rooseveltian Democrats from 1932 to 1980. From 1980 to 2008, the Reaganite Republicans controlled the House of Representatives for twelve years, the Senate for sixteen years, and the White House for twenty years.

Will There Be An Obama Era?

So how can Barack Obama create a new period in American political history, as was done by Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan? As the above history lesson shows, there is one thing he must do:

1) He has to create, for both himself and his party, a compelling populist image that will re-define how the American people views the bi-partisan system, much as Roosevelt did in the 1930s and Reagan did in the 1980s.

After that, he has one of two options:

2A) He could either use the full measure of his presidential power to implement policies that will aggressively and effectively solve the economic crisis which dominates our national life, or

2B) He can get lucky and have the crisis take care of itself.

So far, Obama has refused to do (1) and seems to be striking for a middle ground between (2A) and (2B). Desirous as he is of bringing Democrats and Republicans together in a common brotherhood that fights America's ailments, he refuses to use the bully pulpit of his presidency to paint his side as being populist and, by default, the Republican side as being elitist. Likewise, in order to win the support of as many conservatives as possible, he has refused to push for policies that could end our Great Recession - which he fears are so liberal that they will alienate Republicans - and has instead only opted for policies that will prevent it from worsening, which he hopes will keep Democrats happy while convincing Republicans to climb aboard. Ironically, this approach has actually earned him the worst of all three worlds: Democrats resent him for not following in the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt and doing all he can to bring the recession to an end, Republicans still refuse to work with him no matter what he tries to do to appease them, and average Americans are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his presidency's lack of tangible results.

There are one of three outcomes that can take place in this situation:

1) Barack Obama learns from his mistakes, abandons his efforts to reach out to Republicans, creatively uses his power to pass an ambitious agenda that will end unemployment and our recession, and thus creates a new "Obama Era".

2) Barack Obama doesn't learn from his mistakes but, like Ronald Reagan, lucks out and has the recession take care of itself before he runs for re-election in 2012.

3) Barack Obama doesn't learn from his mistakes, the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney in 2012 (I explain why it would be Romney here:, and Romney defeats Obama.

So will there be an Obama Era? The answer to that question has yet to be written, but Barack Obama is holding the pen.

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