Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Obama as Transformational President

By now you may have seen that this week Andrew Sullivan has another cover story in Newsweek Magazine. The title this time: President Obama: The Democrat's Ronald Reagan. He says that an Obama win this fall would be "a transformational moment in American politics."

I agree completely. But when I read the article, I didn't hear the argument I would make about why. Sullivan - like any good political junkie - gets down into the weeds of comparing Reagan's policy record to that of a potential two-term Obama. I suspect that's because Sullivan actually found something positive about the way that Reagan was transformative. I don't share that view.

My process for comparing the transformative aspects of each president would be to examine the overall forest of the political narrative rather than the trees of specific policies. On those grounds, what we see is President Obama challenging the very heart and soul of the basic message of the Reagan revolution.

Nothing captures better how President Reagan changed the national dialogue in this country more than his statement that "government isn't the solution, its the problem." Playing on the success of the Southern Strategy, the chaos of the 60's and early 70's, and the criminality of the Nixon administration, the country was ripe for a message of deep cynicism about government. And so that message took hold. As I've said before, even during the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton, we heard that "the era of big government is over" and got legislation like welfare reform and de-regulation.

More than anything else, this is the pattern that President Obama has been working to transform. When the country was on the brink of financial collapse, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is what stopped that from happening. The government successfully bailed out the auto industry. Health care reform is certainly not - as the Republicans like to say - a giant government take-over of that industry. But President Obama successfully made the case that government had a role to play in insurance reforms and ensuring that all Americans have access to health care. Wall Street reform reintroduced the idea that the government plays a role in regulating the finance industry.

Those are some of the specifics. But more broadly, if you've heard the President speak over the last two years, at some point you've likely heard him talk about how government can't solve every problem, but it does have an important role to play.

The crux of the choice in this election comes down to whether or not you agree with the Republicans that we're all on our own, or whether - as President Obama is saying - we have a collective responsibility to one another via our shared democratic government. The arguments about "you didn't build that" and the 47% are all messages that reinforce the old Reagan argument that government is the problem.

President Obama is trying to change the way we see our government. He's making a direct challenge to the notion that government is "big brother" out to control our lives. Instead, he's talking about our collective responsibilities to each other via citizenship.
We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations...

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.
If he can get that conversation going - he will indeed be a transformational president.


  1. Absolutely! He is reminding us that WE are the government, that it is not an entity foreign to us, and that government is only as good as we all make it.

  2. This country wasn't built by selfish, greedy people. It was built with an eye toward providing for future generations. "You're on your own" leaves nothing for the future.

    By the way, Smartypants, have you noticed that the President has begun to pivot toward calling out Congress as the last phase of his campaign, just as you predicted? Nice call.

  3. As I said 4 years ago before Obama won the presidency, no, he's not a true liberal. Obama is the transitional president. He's the man that will change the course of the country from the continual advancement of Conservative policy, to one of growing and expanding Liberal policy. Barack Obama was and is not a Dennis Kucinich. Barack Obama is the transitional president such that one of these days maybe a Dennis Kucinich could actually win a national election.