Obama's Grand Ambitions
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jan 21, 2013
Today, the nation witnessed the second inauguration of Barack Obama. While the inauguration four years ago was historic, looking back we may see his second inauguration historic for another reason. In his inaugural address today, President Obama made clear his ambition to usher in the next great phase of liberalism.
Five years ago, then Senator Obama said that he wished to be a transformational president like Ronald Reagan. To be that transformational figure, he needs to repudiate the existing regime and create a suitable replacement according to Stephen Skowronek’s theory in his book President Leadership and Political Time.
The first component of the theory has potentially been met. In 2008, most people blamed George W. Bush and the Republicans for the economic meltdown. Over the past four years, Obama used every opportunity to lay the economic blame on the Republican’s deregulatory policy, the deficit on Republican tax cuts for the rich, and gridlock on the ideological extremism on Republicans, their rejection of science, and their desire to protect the top 1%. Today, we see that most people still blame Bush and the Republicans for the underperforming economy and for most of the nation’s troubles as the Republican brand is toxic. Recent opinion polls show that approval of Congressional Republicans are in the 20s and people disapprove of the GOP by 23% (36% approval to 59% disapproval) while the 48% of the public approves of Democrats.
The second component of creating a suitable replacement began with health care reform and will continue through his second term. To accomplish this, Skowronek suggests a president must redefine politics and then create an institutional structure to perpetuate the president’s electoral coalition and make the party the majority for a generation. President Obama’s inaugural address today continues his effort to redefine American politics.
In his address, the president meditates on the meaning of the Declaration of Independent and declares that equality has been the guiding vision of American politics. Traditionally, transformational presidents, or what Skowronek calls reconstructive presidents, try to redefine the relationship between state and society. Philosophically, presidents seek to retrieve past fundamental values that have been lost in the old order. For Obama, he claims that Republicans ignored equality and in so doing departed from our Founder’ intentions.
His inaugural address begins with a component of the American Creed that all accept: the Declaration’s claim that “all men are created equal” and then later says that equality “is the star that guides us still.” He then links equality with the past talking about how together Americans ended slavery, expanded across the Continent and created “schools and colleges to train out workers” during the latter half of the 19th Century, “discovered a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play” in the early 20th Century and how we resolved to “care for the vulnerable, and protects its people from life worst hazards and misfortune” in the 20th Century. Through his recitation, he connects Lincoln’s fight for equality to the Homestead Act and government subsidies to railroads to populate the West, the Morrill Act that created land grant colleges, to TR’s Square Deal and trust busting, Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedoms, and FDR’s New Deal to regulate business and the New Deal and Great Society that provided a safety net to the underprivileged. Unspoken as part of this arc of history, President Obama has contributed to this movement through universal health care and higher taxes on the rich.
The dominant claim of his address is that equality is the value that has made America great and that is we continue to pursue equality “America’s possibilities are limitless.” Just as important, he emphasizes that we did this together. And when he means together, he means that we did it through government. The president did not talk about the role of civil society and individuals initiative but how “preserving our individual freedom ultimately requires collective action” where collective action means government. The implicit idea is that equality is necessary for people to be free and that equality is more important than freedom. Thus, those who support promoting liberty or freedom at the expense of equality are acting contrary to our Founders’ ideals and the American tradition. If Obama is successful in making politics about promoting equality, conservatives and Republicans will be on the losing end of most political debates in the near future.
To create the institutional structure to perpetuate these ideas, the president then argues that it is now our duty to “bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” In laying out the path to achieve this end, he calls for climate change legislation, equal pay for women, equality for gays including same sex marriage, voting rights, immigration reform, and poverty alleviation. These policies are his attempts to convince the disparate branches of liberalism together that we can alleviate the problems of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and the environment at the same time.
If President Obama can pass these policies, he would cement what some call the “coalition of the ascendant” (minorities, women, and young people) to the Democratic Party making it the majority for a generation or two. President Obama realizes that these groups gave him his electoral edge and that they will continue to grow to be a larger part of the electorate. He also knows that Republicans, as the minority party in the nation, needs to appeal to these groups to win. Thus, he has little incentive to compromise as he squeezes Republicans between the short term need to appease their conservative base and the long term need to appeal to these groups. Obama believes that Republicans must move significantly in his direction or commit electoral suicide. He will bargain for as much as he can get in order to split the Republican Party to brand the GOP as extremist for opposing his policies while using the minority of Republicans who support him to confirm his postpartisan politics. Overall, this strategy would move the nation in the liberal direction so that the moderate position today would be to the left of where it was ten years ago and the moderate position of the future would be to the left of where it is today. Even if he does not achieve all of these objectives in his term (which he will not), he provides the policy and political path forward for Democrats in the coming years.
We can see the politics of the Obama presidency in action already. Frist, he has refused to compromise with Republicans on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling and won both times as taxes went up on the wealthy (and everyone else via the payroll tax) and Republicans gave up requiring cuts in government equal to the rise in the debt ceiling. These successes only confirm Obama’s strategy and embolden him to remain intransigent to maximize his political position. Moreover, his move to transform his campaign organization, Obama for America, into a political organization, Organizing for America, means that he will use grassroots pressure to force recalcitrant Republicans AND Democrats to support him.
Second, we see Obama beginning to remake the Administration in his image. The first term, especially due to the financial problems, required him to hire many Clinton veterans who are more moderate. Now we are seeing what a real Obama Administration looks like. In foreign policy, we see Obama name an internationalist Secretary of State who believes in working with international organization, a Secretary of Defense who believes in reducing the size of the military, and a CIA Director who supports a drone war that allows the US to reduce its military footprint abroad. For Treasury, we see the Administration refusing to reach out to the business community by appointing a political apparatchik who opposes real entitlement reform. While he has not replaced many domestic advisors and cabinet secretaries yet, the names mentioned reflect a younger generation of Democrats who are more committed to the president’s ideological agenda.
Yet despite the president’s grand ambitions, he may not be able to achieve his goals. First, we operate under a separated power system where no one individual or party can impose its will and Republicans have few short term incentives to cooperate. In the House, only 4 House Republicans represent districts that Obama won so they have more to fear from a primary challenge. Furthermore, 17 House Democrats represent Republican districts and 6 Senate Democrats represent deep red states while 3 represent swing states so a liberal agenda endangers them in 2014. Except for immigration reform where Republicans have short and long term incentives to cooperate, the House will pass very little of his agenda and controversial aspects of his agenda like an assault weapons ban and climate change probably cannot pass the Senate.
Second according to Samuel Kernell, the strategy of “going public” to pressure elected officials to support the president usually backfires. By failing to extend benefits for compliance but rather imposing costs for noncompliance makes, bargaining is difficult as there is no exchange so that all parties feel they got something. Moreover, the public posturing of the president fixes the president’s position which means that compromise or defeat makes him look weak. Finally, going over the representatives and Senators’ heads undermines their legitimacy as tribunes of their constituents making them less likely to cooperate.
Third, we lack the financial resources to fund all that the president desires. The simple fact is that we cannot currently guarantee the promises that we have already made to senior citizens and the public opposes new spending when we have such large deficits and debt. When this is clear, the competing branches of liberalism will start fighting among themselves over who is most deserving of government action and help. While the Administration hopes to further raise taxes on the wealthy, there is not enough money there to fund his program.
The only two options left then are cutting spending or raising taxes. The president needs to reform entitlements as even he says health care spending is the biggest driver of deficits. But reforming Medicare and Medicaid would reduce spending on the poor which would disrupt the Democratic coalition by dividing liberals and splitting socially liberal businessmen and the young from the poor and minorities. The need for more revenue is why climate change received the most attention of any policy initiative in the inaugural address. The president and liberals are hoping for a carbon tax to raise the money they need to fund the liberal agenda. However, a carbon tax or a value added tax (VAT) would hit the poor the hardest and create ruptures in the Democratic coalition. The question is would the president be willing to confront his liberal base to make these changes? His history so far suggests he would not. So even if President Obama does not confront these problems, the Democratic Party must confront them soon because of the potential solvency problems of Social Security and Medicare.
Fourth, congressional inaction and his lame duck status in the last two years will lead him to more executive action and a greater emphasis on foreign policy. With climate change legislation unlikely to pass either the House or Senate, the president will use the EPA’s power to regulate carbon dioxide to reduce climate change. While it will apply the rules to new plants, the Administration has a tricky decision about how to regulate older power plants without raising energy costs and launching a “war on coal.” The Administration hopes that the regulations will force business to negotiate a climate change framework and support the necessary taxes to avoid something even more onerous. However, a Republican House and the number of Democratic states that rely on coal and other dirty fossil fuels make an onerous regulatory regime politically difficult.
Finally while the president is on the offensive now, he will soon move to the defensive. In 2014, health care reform begins in earnest. However, the difficulties of setting up the exchanges, the failure to expand Medicaid in certain states, the fines for not buying insurance and other things will continue to plague the start-up and implementation of the law. While the president will suggest tweaks to the law, the problems could make an unpopular law even more unpopular. When you combine these problems with the unpopularity associated with climate change proposals, the national debt, and expected Republican gains in 2014, President Obama will most likely spend most of his second term defending his health care law and consolidating his political gains.
The president clearly has the upper hand politically at this point and is using it to advance his agenda. However, the political environment will change and Republicans will adapt. How well the president, Democrats, and Republicans play the political game over the next few years will determine whether Obama achieve his grand ambitions and earns his place in the pantheon of great presidents.