Last year, when the blogger and amateur gynecologist Andrew Sullivan published a Newsweek cover story proclaiming Barack Obama the liberal Ronald Reagan, conservatives mocked him. No one deserves mockery more than Sullivan—well, maybe Paul Krugman—but in this case the criticism was misplaced. 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.
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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 inspiration for the counterrevolution was Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, who endorsed Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, spoke on his behalf at that year’s Democratic convention in Denver, and died eight months into his first term. Kennedy was overshadowed in life by the memory of his martyred brothers, John and Robert, but in retrospect it is clear that he was the most influential of the three.
He was the prime mover of the 1965 immigration reform that began the process of demographic change culminating in 2012’s "coalition of the ascendant." He was the force behind an expanded federal role in education and coauthor, with George W. Bush, of No Child Left Behind. He was the most prominent advocate for the creation of a universal entitlement to health insurance and, although he did not live to see the Affordable Care Act become law, would have fought fiercely for Obama’s top domestic priority.
Kennedy worked with Republicans on occasion, but he was above all a partisan and an ideologue. He spent the last decades of his life fighting a rearguard action against the Reagan Revolution and movement conservatism. He was unsuccessful for the most part, but he never missed the chance to champion the welfare state and call for its expansion.
Obama emulated these aspects of Kennedy’s personality when he assumed the executive power. America was reeling from two unpopular wars and a brutal recession. The public’s associations of these disasters with Republicans handed Obama large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. It was a crisis he could not waste.
And so Obama and his fellows went to work, passing a trillion-dollar stimulus, a universal health care bill, and a major financial reform. They built on Kennedy’s work on education and (via executive order) immigration. They began to reduce the defense budget while increasing spending on health care. Toward the end of the first term they began to give states the option of loosening the welfare work requirements that Clinton had signed into law.
The underperforming economy, reaction to bailouts of the financial system and the automobile sector (started under Bush II but continued under Obama), and the unpopular health care law all contributed to the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms. Conservatives interpreted this victory as an expression of popular support for limited government. What they did not understand, however, is that control of the House does not equal divided government.
Divided government is when one party controls the presidency and the other controls the Congress. Divided government existed from 1995 to 2001, and checked Clinton’s liberal instincts. Divided government existed from 2007 to 2009, and closed the book on George W.’s unsuccessful second term. The political situation in the aftermath of 2010 was not divided government. It was schizophrenic government.
Republican control of the House could stop the liberal advance but could not reverse it. Both sides thus looked to the 2012 election to decide the question of which revolution—Reagan’s, or Obama’s—would proceed. The dissatisfaction of the public with Congress and the ambiguous approval rating of Obama suggested that the people would deliver an unequivocal choice. Instead the people affirmed precisely the arrangement of power they disliked.
There was one difference, however. Conservatives and Republicans, unlike in 2008, had been so confident of the president’s unpopularity, had so believed in the possibility that the election would be a close if not decisive victory for Mitt Romney, that they were legitimately shocked when the networks called 2012 for Obama within hours of the polls closing. The stunned silence was accompanied by the growing realization that the country was no longer the same place that had installed the Reagan Revolution. Political power had lulled the Republicans and conservatives into a complacent attitude towards the popular culture, mass media, and civil society. They had viewed the 2006 and 2008 elections as temporary boons for the Democrats that would be corrected when the public came to its senses and resumed the progress of the conservative tide. What 2012 proved was that their hypothesis was incorrect.
Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. They have controlled both chambers of Congress for just 10 of the last 20 years. More disturbing was the recognition that conservatives have failed to limit government. Entitlements grew throughout the Reagan Revolution despite reductions in the tax burden. Americans continue to look to the federal government for solutions to every endemic problem, from inequality to the business cycle to rampage killings to the weather. Americans continue to lobby the federal government for additional economic and social rights and guard those rights zealously from interference once they have been granted. But only the smallest of minorities, the men and women who wear uniforms, seems eager to perform the duties necessary to ensure self-government.
A president known for his passivity and cool seized this moment of conservative doubt and uncertainty. In the weeks after his reelection, Obama displayed enormous and impressive energy as he moved to break the Republican Party. He pressed the GOP on every front, including tax increases, the debt ceiling, gun control (sorry: "gun violence prevention"), an immigration plan that includes amnesty for illegal migrants, and nominating for secretary of defense a Republican dove who, unlike every other prospective cabinet member, is eager to whittle down his department. The Republicans meanwhile have collapsed into infighting and retreat and, in some cases, outright delusion.
It is of course possible that the inauguration of a reelected president is his moment of maximum triumph. It is of course possible that Obama’s second term may turn out like George W. Bush’s, when the lyricism and passion of the second inaugural collided with the realities of strategic miscalculations and unexpected events. I have my doubts. What I do not doubt is that the 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.