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).
Listing these characteristics of Obama’s thinking makes it clear that the president he most resembles is not FDR or Abraham Lincoln, as was frequently suggested before his inauguration, but Jimmy Carter. Like Carter, Obama seems to view economic globalization and American deindustrialization as an inevitable process and to see the role of government as seeking to mitigate their destructive impact. Like Carter, he has gone out of his way to appoint a racially diverse administration. Like Carter, he does not have an industrial policy or a robust jobs-creation program and seems uninterested in addressing the hardships and structural imbalances caused by the decline of manufacturing.
Obama’s economic program reflects and, indeed, reinforces the long-term shift from manufacturing to finance in the American economy. And his bailout of the banks and insurance mega-company AIG with no strings attached has aroused resentments that should not be ignored, even if they are often couched in extreme and racist language. There is a widespread sense that the rules of the game have been fixed to the advantage of the wealthy and that the government is indifferent to the plight of ordinary Americans. Ironically, for all the blacks appointed to highly visible positions in Washington, the condition of most African-Americans has worsened during Obama’s first year. Blacks have suffered disproportionately from the decline of manufacturing employment and mortgage foreclosures. It is unlikely that an avowedly postracial president will directly address their plight.
On foreign policy, the parallels with Carter are even closer, down to a joint preoccupation with Afghanistan. Both Carter and Obama reoriented the rhetoric of American foreign policy toward international cooperation, yet found it difficult to translate this ideal into practice. Carter continued to support tyrants like the Shah of Iran, launched a military buildup that paved the way for Reagan’s and reinvigorated the cold war after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As for Obama, his recent address on Afghanistan and his surprisingly bellicose speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize reveal that he has comfortably embraced the role of wartime president, even adopting Bush-like language about a titanic global confrontation between the forces of evil and those of freedom. This has reignited the martial spirit of the liberal interventionists, who applauded the invasion of Iraq, later apologized (more or less) and now praise Obama’s supposed “realism” in recognizing that wars are sometimes necessary. Only “just wars,” of course. But was there ever a war its combatants did not consider just?
One lesson we should learn from Obama’s first year is the difficulty of effecting change, even in times of crisis. Fearful of popular democracy, the men who wrote the Constitution created a government system designed to make it far easier to prevent change than to implement it. Today this structural inertia is compounded by the power of money in politics and by an entrenched military establishment. Obama has failed to heed the lesson Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs debacle at the outset of his presidency–not to accept at face value the advice of his generals (a realization that served Kennedy and the world well during the Cuban missile confrontation of 1962).
A crisis, however, also creates an opportunity. To seize it, the first prerequisite is to “disenthrall ourselves” from accepted maxims, as Lincoln urged Americans to do in 1862. “As our case is new,” he said, “so we must think anew and act anew.” Obama still has plenty of time to do this. It was only after their first year that Lincoln became the Great Emancipator, FDR the architect of the Second New Deal and Kennedy a champion of civil rights. Not one of these presidents acted simply on his own volition. All three were pressured to change by engaged social movements–abolitionists, the labor movement, the struggle for racial justice.
Given this country’s tortured racial history, Obama’s election will always represent a symbolic watershed. To make sure that it amounts to more than this, progressives must stop making excuses or falling back on extenuating circumstances in assessing Obama. Without forgetting the differences between Obama and his increasingly retrograde Republican opposition, we must reject the outdated assumptions to which Obama clings on economic and foreign policy and forthrightly press for genuine change, speaking truth to power even when that power is held by men and women we helped put into office.