Back in the summer of 2007, when most of the smart money was still on Hillary Clinton coasting to the Democratic nomination, I wrote a cover story for the American Spectator arguing that then-Sen. Barack Obama was the one who conservatives really needed to worry about, and I raised the possibility of his becoming a liberal Ronald Reagan. In essence, this means a president who not only wins elections (as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did), but one who ideologically shifts the nation in his direction. So I was intrigued today by a lot of the commentary raising the Reagan comparison. See, for instance, Matthew Continetti and Charles Krauthammer on the right and Michael Tomasky on the left.
There are a number of ways to handle this question. On the policy front, it could be argued that the passage of the national health care law was a more significant policy achievement than anything Reagan ever accomplished in the sense that it expanded the welfare state far more than Reagan was ever able to shrink it. But on the other hand, what was significant about Reagan’s legacy was that for decades after he left office, Democrats still had to run away from the image that they were big government liberals during campaigns, even if they favored more taxes and spending. Liberals such as Noam Scheiber and Ezra Klein are cheering the fact that in his speech Obama attempted to make an unapologetic case for liberalism. Whether or not he ultimately wins the argument ultimately depend on a several factors discussed below.
– The economy. Obama survived reelection in 2012 not because the economy was great, but because it was relatively better then the one he inherited. Despite their concerns, enough Americans bought his argument that the economy was slowly but surely improving and that more time was needed. However, if what they end up with is another four years of a middling recovery — let alone another dip — big government policies are going to be associated in the public mind with economic stagnation, which will make it harder for Obama to win the broader argument. If there’s a boom in the next few years, then Obama will obviously be in a stronger position to make his case for a more muscular federal government, just as Reagan’s ideological arguments were helped by the economic boom of the 1980s.
– Obamacare. In a sense, if Obama does nothing for the next four years besides implement his signature legislative achievement, his second term could be seen as a rousing success for liberals, because it cemented in place one of the biggest expansions of the welfare state ever. But it’ll also be important to see how implementation goes. If critics are right and we’ll see some combination of bureaucratic chaos, long lines, higher costs, and soaring premiums, it’ll make things a lot harder for Obama. But if the law’s proponents are right and it delivers benefits to millions without disrupting the health care experiences of those who are already happy with the care they have, then Obama will be emboldened.
– Foreign policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately vindicated Ronald Reagan’s primary foreign policy goal of winning the Cold War. In Obama’s second term, does his foreign policy begin to unravel around the world, or will he be able to claim similar vindication — for instance, for his call for more engagement?
– Treasury markets. Do bond investors continue to purchase U.S. debt at low interest rates because it’s a less bad option than investing in other countries, or do they get impatient because of the lack of deficit reduction? Americans may not like the size of the national debt, but Obama can get away with ignoring it as long as they don’t see any effects in their every day lives, such as inflation or higher interest rates.
This is a shorter way of saying that when trying to win an ideological argument in a nation, ultimately, results matter.