“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Those statements were made by then-candidate Barack Obama in the heat of the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. In these remarks, Obama telegraphed the overarching goal of his presidency.
Since Reagan’s term in office, the conservative ideology of limited government, low taxation, and deregulation have been the dominant features of American politics. On a range of issues, the political conversation has been carrying onout in a decidedly conservative accent in the past few decades. As part of his main legacy in office, Obama aims to untether the country from the clutches of conservatism that has dominated American policy for more than thirty years.
By the end of the 1960's, the Franklin Roosevelt’s coalition that allowed the Democratic Party to dominate American politics in the wake of World War II was disintegrating. This disintegration was caused, in large part, by the backlash against the civil rights law that was enacted by Lyndon Johnson. Because of those laws, Johnson knew that his party would forfeit a large chunk of voters, who were an integral part of the Democratic base, to the Republican Party.
These voters became part of a new coalition, which proceeded to propel Reagan into the White House. Reagan did not create the moment; but he helped shape it. In his first inaugural address, he declared that the “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Henceforth, this statement has become an article of faith among conservatives. Except for national defense, they do not believe that the government should take the lead in helping to address the major problems facing the countryies.
The decades before Reagan ascended to the presidency, the government took bold action in order to provide health care to the elderly and the poor in the form of Medicare and Medicaid; the government created programs that allowed scores of Americans to attend colleges and universities for the first time; the government enacted laws that permit millions of Americans to buy their own homes, thereby allowing them to get a foothold in the middle class; the government passed the Social Security Act that sharply reduces poverty among the elderly; the government, finally, enacted landmark civil right laws that put an end to de jure segregation.
Ever since Reagan’s presidency, conservatives have hewed stubbornly to the notion that government is always the problem. As such, the government could not be trusted to even organize the proverbial two-car parade effectively. This idea has become entrenched not only among conservative activists but also among most Republican voters.
In the past three decades, this deeply-held belief by this large segment of Americans and conservative public officials has placed the government in a straightjacket. Consequently, the government did not pass any major legislation even when Bill Clinton was president. In the meantime, serious issues such as inequality, climate change, and the growing number of uninsured Americans, which should require government’s attention, remain unaddressed or were given short shrift during those years.
The electoral power of the Reagan’s coalition is ebbing. Meanwhile, a new coalition is emerging. This emerging coalition, or the “coalition of ascendant,” as it has been called by Ronald Brownstein, played a critical role in the election and reelection of Obama. Those who are part of the coalition –- blacks, Hispanics, Asians, young and college educated white women – -do not adhere to the cramped view that conservatives have about the government. They are more likely to believe that the government could play a constructive role in addressing the many issues facing the countries.
Even before his election, Obama clearly was thinking about the impact that Reagan had on the country. Even the political discussions on issues such as taxation and foreign policy have continued to be framed by conservatives. In order to make his own mark as president, Obama knows that he would have to direct the country in a different direction than Reagan’s. It, then, begs the question: hHas Obama managed during his first term to set the country on a different course?
During his four years in office, Obama has had many significant accomplishments that are indeed moving the country in a new direction. For instance, with the killing of Osama bin Laden and his success against Aal-Qaeda, Obama became the first Democrat to maintain an advantage over his Republican opponent in decades. Through his strong leadership on foreign policy, the president has turned a net negative into a net positive for Democrats in merely four years. This success protects the president from charges of being soft on national security when he stresses diplomacy over armed conflict.
The notion of small government has been one of the professed beliefs of Republicans ever since Reagan was in the White House. To achieve that goal, conservatives are always willing to cut taxes or vow to never raise them. To show their devotion to this anti-tax pledge, no Republicans had voted for a tax increase in twenty-two years. But last month, many Republicans were, finally, forced to cast a vote for a tax hike to keep the country from going over the so-called fiscal cliff. Since many Republicans voted for the deal, it is an unwitting acknowledgment that the party’s anti-tax pledge does not make much sense.
The shadow of Ronald Reagan has loomed large over his successors. Even Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, proudly declared that the “era of big government is over.” By passing the Affordable Health Care Act, the most far-reaching domestic initiative since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid, Obama has redefined the role that the government could play in the country’s domestic affairs.
Therefore, Obama has already succeeded in closing the window on the Reagan’s era. As he continues to add to his already significant accomplishments during the second term, Obama is destined to cast a big shadow over his successors.