Time will tell
Will Obama step up for liberals — as Reagan did for conservatives — to be a champion of progressive change?
By Barry Gordon 12/25/2012
As the “fiscal cliff” clock continues counting down, most of the talk in the Beltway media has focused on the need by both sides to compromise and find that longed-for middle ground. After all, weren’t Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’ Neill able to do that in the 1980s? How about Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s? Certainly, no one’s about to argue that the politics in the latter example were significantly less polarized than they are now. So isn’t it time to put ideology aside and get something done?
Maybe. But it depends on what that “something” is.
President Obama is currently in the strongest position he’s been in since he was first elected. While most pundits predicted either a close win or a loss in November, in the end, the president won the popular vote handily and sailed to a lopsided electoral vote victory. In addition, while the betting was on the Republicans to regain the US Senate in the early primary months, they ultimately lost a net of two seats to Democrats and found their House majority whittled down. If the president compromises now, it should be a 70-30 deal favoring his position, not a half-loaf sort of thing. He should not even contemplate a tax hike on the wealthy lower than the Clinton rates unless he gets something major in return, like a permanent end to the ability of Congress to use the debt ceiling as a hostage in order to obtain draconian spending cuts. As the Republicans have taught us progressives, when you have leverage, you better use it.
But I believe that President Obama has a larger mission, if he chooses to accept it. One of the most important tasks of a modern president is to lead his or her political party. Being president requires creating a vision and then getting most of America to embrace it.
What people often forget is that the great leaders of the past century, like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, were ideological. While they may have been willing to make compromises at the edges, they remained absolutely steadfast to their core values. Reagan did not go down in history as the Great Compromiser. He was, and still is, seen as a true conservative who created a revolution in this country that has lasted for more than three decades. While former speechwriter Peggy Noonan can wax ecstatic about his great deal-making with O’Neill, that fact deserves only a footnote in Reagan’s résumé. Far more important was his ringing statement that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Those 12 words have become deeply embedded in our culture — so much so that any other way of thinking about government seems faintly “European,” if not downright socialist. There is a difference when the great national pronouncement of a movement’s principles comes from the person sitting in the Oval Office.
Clinton either never had the opportunity to lead in this way, or chose not to. After the tax hike of 1993, which he accomplished without one Republican vote, and after the Hillary health-care debacle, he spent most of his time in office being the great “triangulator,” reaching out to the middle on issues like welfare reform and NAFTA. What he was not was the leader of a great progressive resurgence. Much of our love for Bill Clinton comes from the power of his own personality, our sympathy for him as the victim of an entirely inappropriate impeachment attempt and his benefiting from comparison to the two Republican regimes he was sandwiched between. As president, however, he did not further the liberal cause or even begin to reverse the conservative tide that had been sweeping across the country.
Obama can choose to push back that tide, already showing signs of receding. He has been effective at pointing out some of the great harms that the Reagan revolution has wrought — the massive deregulation that led to the 2008 financial collapse, the glorification of the unfettered free market as the core attribute of American democracy, the mania for low tax rates to protect “job creators” and to starve the governmental beast and the refusal to recognize the many benefits that government can, in fact, provide for its citizens. We do not need a “reverse Reagan” to assert that government is the solution for all our problems, because it was never that. But we do need someone to oppose the idea that government is always the problem, and that smaller government is always the answer.
Obama has been re-elected and has nothing more to prove, except to history. If bipartisanship and compromise become his core missions, he may be an effective president but not a great one. If, on the other hand, he is willing to become a powerful spokesperson for a new progressive vision — one who fights for the middle class, for working people, for fairness and justice — then his presidency could be one of the most important in our lifetimes. We may look back to see the Obama administration as a time when society came back into balance and the excesses of conservatism came to an end. A time when “liberal” stopped being a dirty word and became a symbol for progress for us all.
The conservatives have their “Reagan.” Will Obama step up and be ours? n
Barry Gordon is an adjunct professor at Cal State LA.