EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Periods of liberal advancement have short, fast lives. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal ran out of steam in 1937, after just four years. In early 1964, Lyndon Johnson showed an aide his list of Great Society programs and presciently told him to “assume that we have to do it all in 1965 and 1966, and probably in 1966 we’ll lose our big margin in the Congress.” FDR and LBJ had four years and two years, respectively, in which they had enough congressional support to enact their legislative visions. But with the continued decay of liberalism’s half-life, Barack Obama had basically seven months in 2009 (between the seating of Al Franken and the loss of Ted Kennedy) in which he could move things through the Senate.
Periods of liberal advancement also build upon what was achieved in the past. The New Deal emerged after a lengthy period of experimentation across the Atlantic with social insurance, regulations, and labor rights. As Johnson outlined what he wanted to accomplish, he told an aide that “almost all the issues now are just about the same as they were when I came here in Congress nearly thirty years ago.” A huge list of liberal reforms had been stuck in a dysfunctional Congress, and Johnson’s massive win over Barry Goldwater in 1964 would give liberals a commanding majority and allow him to pass it.
Obama, however, came to office after 30 years of conservative dominance in politics—just as that dominance was collapsing, but before a new liberal vision of the economy could be firmly put in place. As a result, his economic platform was caught between two periods: one centrist and defensive against conservative assaults, the other growing more assertively liberal. Much was accomplished, but those accomplishments now appear to be fleeting. Their dual nature leaves these reforms vulnerable, particularly with an administration taking over the White House that will relentlessly seek to roll them back. Without a broader liberal mobilization to defend and expand these actions, the advances made in the Obama years will quickly disappear.
The biggest challenge Obama faced was the Great Recession, a period in which unemployment skyrocketed to 10 percent and only slowly came down in the next eight years. This recession destroyed the consensus view that the Federal Reserve had an almost omnipotent ability to steer the economy, and that the most useful role for the rest of the government was to provide a good atmosphere for investment. But Obama struggled to replace that consensus with a broader vision of how (and for whom) the economy actually works.
There was an initial push to revitalize the idea that the federal government should pursue full employment, most notably through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill. But a stimulus large enough to tackle the problem couldn’t get through Congress. Nor did Obama attempt to use other tools to boost the economy. Income inequality has continued to grow during his tenure, while wage growth has been sluggish. He failed to put more aggressive members on the board of the Federal Reserve, with some positions sitting vacant for long periods. Efforts to deal with bad housing debt and foreclosures—the real drivers of the economy’s weakness—weren’t pursued with the same vigor that bailing out the banks was.