The first year may not be the best way to judge a president. After one year in office, Abraham Lincoln still insisted that slavery would not become a target of the Union war effort, Franklin D. Roosevelt had yet to address the need for social insurance in the wake of the Great Depression and John F. Kennedy viewed the civil rights movement as an annoying distraction. If we admire them today, it is mostly for what happened during the rest of their presidencies.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to view Obama’s initial year without a feeling of deep disappointment. This arises from more than unrealistic expectations, although his candidacy certainly aroused a great deal of wishful thinking among those yearning for a change after nearly thirty years of Reaganism. Nor does disappointment result from too exacting a standard of judgment. In fact, the bar has arguably been set too low. Too many of us have been willing to fall back on a comparison between Obama and his predecessor, arguably the worst president in American history, and leave it at that.
Not surprisingly, given the global economic crisis, numerous observers greeted Obama’s election by comparing him to FDR. This was a serious error. Obama is not a New Deal liberal. Rather, his outlook reflects how the preoccupations of liberalism have changed under the impact of the social and political transformations since the 1930s.
Obama came of age politically at a time when the decline of the labor movement had eroded one social base of liberalism while new ones were emerging from the upheavals of the 1960s and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the American population. Personally, he embodies the rise to prominence in the Democratic Party of highly educated professionals, including a new black upper middle class that emerged from the struggles of the ’60s and subsequent affirmative action programs. He is also closely identified with what might be called the more forward-looking wing of Wall Street, which contributed heavily to his campaign and to which he has entrusted his economic policy.
Obama has no evident desire to address the questions that defined New Deal liberalism and remain all too relevant today–economic inequality; mass unemployment; unrestrained corporate power; and the struggle of workers, through unions, to enjoy “industrial democracy.” Where Obama has been good is on issues that were subordinate themes during the 1930s but have become central to post-World War II liberalism–women’s reproductive rights, respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, environmentalism and racial and ethnic diversity, especially in government employment.
Obama also embodies a strain of thought alien to the New Deal but associated with the Progressivism of the early twentieth century, the desire to take politics out of the hands of politicians. Like the old Progressives, he seems to believe that the government can move beyond partisan politics to operate in a businesslike manner to promote the public good (despite clear evidence that the other side is not cooperating). As in the Progressive Era, this outlook goes hand in hand with a strong respect for scientific expertise (quite different from George W. Bush’s approach).