Obama's legacy hinges on the economy

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

With Republicans poised to take control of the House, Barack Obama has come to the end (at least, until 2013) of the progressive-reform period of his presidency. It's time to ask how he measures up when compared with his Democratic predecessors who had a kindred opportunity.

By the standards of his mid-20th-century predecessors, Obama's achievements, while substantial, are less far-reaching. Health-care reform was an epochal triumph, but unlike the social and medical insurance programs crafted by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, it does not provide universal coverage, in part because Obama lacked the votes for a government-run public option, much less single-payer. The Dodd-Frank financial reform act limited Wall Street's capacity to tank the economy, but it did far less than legislation from the 1930s to constrain the size and conduct of big banks. Unlike FDR and LBJ, moreover, Obama never convinced the public that his landmark legislation would make their economic lives less perilous. This was no minor failing.

When Obama's record is measured against those of his two most recent Democratic predecessors, however, he clearly comes out on top. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had larger Democratic congressional majorities than Obama did during their first two years but contributed surprisingly little to greater social or economic equity. (In fairness to them, more congressional Democrats in those days were Southern conservatives. In fairness to Obama, he, unlike his predecessors, had to overcome filibusters on virtually every bill.)

And unlike Roosevelt and Johnson, the three most recent Democratic presidents all suffered from a lack of left-wing street heat. What distinguishes Obama - and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid - is that they pushed through so much legislation despite the absence of legions demanding progressive change (though there was a very effective mass lobby, if not a mass movement, for repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" ban).

Among the battles that Democrats lost, their failures to reform immigration and labor law stand out as missed political mega-opportunities. Both bills would have remedied the kinds of injustices that Democrats have historically remedied - immigration reform, allowing millions of American residents to claim basic human rights; labor law reform, helping boost Americans' long-depressed incomes by enabling private-sector employees to join unions without fear of being fired. Both bills would also have enlarged the pool of Democratic voters - and with that, the potential for further reform. Union members vote Democratic at rates far higher than their nonunion counterparts. The Latinos and Asians who would eventually become citizens under the proposed immigration reform would augment the Democratic Party's advantage among voters of color.

It's no mystery why almost every Republican opposed these bills and almost every Democrat supported them. In the short term, the Republicans' descent into nativism and white neo-nationalism profitably exploits the anxiety of their base. In the long term, as the share of Latino Americans continues to rise, the GOP's racial policies are politically suicidal. Judging by the available evidence, though, Republicans don't, or can't, think long-term.

The greater mystery is why a handful of Democratic senators opposed immigration and labor-law reform. Democratic opponents of these bills - such as Nebraska's Ben Nelson, for one - gave short shrift to both democratic egalitarianism and Democratic prospects.

The battle Democrats haven't sufficiently waged during Obama's first two years was to restore the economy. The failure was, in part, intellectual: The president and his economic advisers didn't grasp that a recession that destroyed so much wealth, in an economy whose major corporations are bent on expanding abroad rather than at home, required different trade and industrial policies and a larger stimulus to turn the country around. Obama should get credit, however, for keeping things from getting worse despite unified Republican opposition.

For all his victories, Obama's presidency will rise or fall on his success in rebuilding the economy. In the next two years, he'll have to become the president of internal improvements and industrial policy - approaches whose pedigree is as much 19th-century Whig and Republican (in a word, Lincolnesque) as it is Democratic. There isn't a clear model for Democratic presidents after their reform window closes. Lincoln - not just the emancipator but also the champion of infrastructure development, tariffs and government help to industries - wouldn't be bad.


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