22 January 2013
Throughout American history, only a few presidents have brought about truly lasting transformational change: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Having saved the union in the Civil War, Lincoln set the scene for seven decades of Republican hegemony that included only two Democratic presidents.
With FDR's New Deal coalition, his Democrats won the White House in seven of nine elections. After reshaping government and winning the Cold War, Reagan presaged two decades of conservative governance (including a Democratic president who proclaimed the end of big government).
All thought big, brought dramatic change at a time of domestic crisis, energised their parties and attracted new voters. Crucially, all presided over an ideological realignment in Washington.
Barack Obama has always aimed to be a consequential president.
During the Democratic primaries in 2008, he praised Reagan as a ''transformational president'' in a way that Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were not. Reagan, Obama said, ''put [America] on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it''.
As he prepares for his second term, it is clear that the ''transformation'' Obama himself has envisaged is a return to the pre-Reagan era of government expansion and left-liberal ascendancy.
He may be succeeding. As the distinguished conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer concedes, Obama's forthright attempt to undo the Reagan revolution with a burst of interventionist liberal governance is the theme animating his presidency.
Consider the past four years:
- A near $1 trillion stimulus, the largest spending bill in US history, which included the vast expansion of domestic spending and eventually the first income tax increase in nearly two decades.
- A national healthcare program that has begun one of the most massive wealth redistributions in American history.
- Major financial reform, which has led to unprecedented government power in the financial marketplace.
In American terms, Obama's agenda is amounting to the most radical ideological change in generations. Despite high unemployment and huge deficits as far as the eye can see, he won re-election convincingly. He is now putting his divided opponents on the political back foot.
True, the Democratic left has attacked Obama for not being liberal enough. After all, he has failed to close the Guantanamo detention camp, pass an emissions trading scheme and end the Afghanistan war earlier in his term. This President is no dove, but neither is he a neo-conservative global crusader.
It is also true that Obama's transformational agenda has failed to kick-start a battered economy.
Nor has it solidified his Democratic majority: his expansion of government spending and debt led to a backlash in the form of the Tea Party in 2009 and subsequently a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Nonetheless, Obama's America has become a more progressive place. Take social issues. As recently as 2010, Obama opposed gay marriage. Last year he changed his mind and his U-turn did not hurt his political prospects one jot. In November, voters adopted a same-sex marriage initiative in as many as four states. This was after 32 defeats at the ballot box.
Take race. As minorities (Latinos, Asians and African-Americans) increase, the white share of the national vote declines. This trend, according to many political experts, represents a growing political liability for the right. But even conservatives are changing.
In South Carolina (of all places), a Republican Governor, a daughter of immigrants from India, recently appointed a black Republican to be the state's senator. The front runners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 are Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American Governor of Louisiana, and Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from Florida. African-Americans have been governors of majority-white states and mayors of majority-white cities.
Meanwhile, the so-called Millennials - those aged between 18 and 29 - are far more progressive on drug reform, gun control, abortion rights and same-sex issues than their parents. They also take a more dovish view on foreign policy. According to a Chicago Council survey last year, a majority want America to ''stay out'' of world affairs.
To the extent that such attitudes prevail, they may contradict the idea that America is The Right Nation (the title of a 2004 award-winning book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.)
In any case, Australians are entitled to be confused. On gun control, John Howard is to the left of many Democrats; on gay marriage, Julia Gillard is to the right of Dick Cheney.
Still, the point here is that Obama's presidency has already been momentous. For better or worse, he has transformed American politics.
The historian Arthur Schlesinger jnr once observed that American history tends to be in distinct and predictable cycles - decades of conservative governance alternating with decades of progressive reform.
By re-electing Obama, Americans have not only closed the first cycle. They may give more momentum to the second.
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