Is Obama Our Nixon?

Is Obama Our Nixon?


My final weekly 100 Days column is in the magazine this week, and up on the web here. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to convert the column to a biweekly one, so I can do some more feature reporting. (We’ll have to come up with a new name. Suggestions welcome in comments.)

I’ve had some interesting exchanges with readers and friends about this Notes on Change column, and wanted to expand and clarify one of the points. A number people have said they found my tone somber, even pessimistic. But while I’ve found much of the last three months frustrating, I’ve also started to come around to a view about Obama and his role in the story of American progress that’s a bit different, I think, than the prevailing CW among left-liberals in the District.

The standard view I encounter is that the left has a once-in-a-generation (maybe once in a century) opportunity to enact its agenda, and if we don’t do it now, and quickly, we’re sunk. I’m sympathetic to this view because it’s true that crisis really does create opportunity, because conservatism really is as discredited as its been in decades, and because the American constitutional system is so unruly and hostile to change that electoral alignments like the one Democrats currently enjoy are rare.

But there’s also the possibility that we’re at the beginning of a long era of social democratic ascendence. I think both demographic trends and the nature of the kinds of social, economic problems we’re facing make that fairly likely. That’s why I wrote that:

I wonder, though, if we won’t look back and see him as a figure similar to Nixon. I don’t mean we’ll see him as a tragic, corrupt man driven by his pathological attachment to sundry resentments but as a president whose visionary understanding of a new political dynamic didn’t translate into policy changes on a sufficient scale. The ship of state was subject to many of the same inertial forces during Nixon’s time as well, and despite Nixon’s genius in harnessing the power of the culture wars, when it came to domestic policy, he more or less maintained, even expanded, the liberal state.

Conservatives had to wait for Reagan to start the revolution. We are, I believe, at the beginning of a long era of progressive ascendance. It may be that this is the last administration conceptually handcuffed by the residual dogmas of late twentieth-century conservatism.

One way of reading this as a glum prediction about how much Obama will be able to accomplish, but what I dwell on is that change really is going to be a long process and that the arrow of history is pointing in our direction.

Ad Policy