Obama won’t win the ideological battle — just as Reagan didn’t

February 13, 2013

Despite what some might think, Barack Obama’s recent liberal rhetoric in the State of the Union speech and at his Inauguration won’t be “transformative.” Not because it’s not good enough, but because it just doesn’t work that way.

How do we know? Because Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric didn’t transform the electorate into conservatives, either. It just never happened, mostly because most voters aren’t ideological, anyway. At best, what Obama could do is to teach people who already vote for liberal politicians and support liberal policy positions to start calling themselves liberals. But even then, it’s unlikely that a new label would affect what they believe about specific policy ideas.

So when I see something such as this conclusion from Richard Stevenson in the New York Times, I suspect he has it backwards:

Mr. Clinton presided over a booming economy and he balanced the budget. But Clinton-ism, at least by Mr. Obama’s own assessment in 2008, proved not to be transformative. Whether Obama-ism does any better in the long run will be judged in part on his success in changing the austerity narrative along the lines he set out Tuesday night.

“Changing…the narrative” now won’t change how people think about government programs. What will? The success of those programs. If the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented and works reasonably well, it will shift from being an example of expanded government (for good or bad) to part of normal government. The same is true for the reforms in the Dodd-Frank banking bill, the demise of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and prospective second-term Obama initiatives such as immigration reform and gun legislation.

What really matters is designing programs that work, winning enough elections to enact them, and then sticking around in office long enough to implement them. If Obama can do all that for the programs he supports, we’ll still have the same numbers for big-think divides on whether government should be big or small — but he will have accomplished something real, and lasting.

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Rachel Manteuffel | February 13, 2013