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Obama's 'Transformational' Presidency? Nowhere in Sight

Obama's Chance to Be Next FDR or Reagan Fading Fast

Steve Thomma

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's dream of being a historically
transformational figure like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan may
be slipping from his grasp.

To be sure, he's already made one lasting mark that changed the
country's course - his election as the first African-American president
broke a centuries-old racial barrier.

also could break through with bold new initiatives that change the
course of history, as Richard Nixon did late in his first term when he
opened U.S. relations with communist China.

Obama's quest to usher in a new liberal era - one with major new
policies and a growing Democratic voter majority punctuating a shift
away from the conservative era that Reagan ushered in - is in trouble
and may be disintegrating.

Health care? His best hope now is a
Senate plan that would leave millions still uninsured, dashing his
promise of universal health care, and even that may already be out of

Legislation to fight global warming? Stalled in the Senate.

peace in the Middle East? Hasn't been able to get the region's
adversaries in the same room, let alone close to agreement.

Ending venomous partisanship? Washington is more polarized than ever.

Leading his party to an enduring majority? Right now, it's heading in the other direction.

tried, but to this point, he's failed," said George Edwards, a scholar
of the presidency at Texas A&M University. "He got things done, but
they're not the historic things that are transformational."

himself set the bar higher than merely getting things done. He didn't
want an "in-box" presidency that simply reacted to problems, nor did he
want to ride to re-election on popular but small measures.

the campaign, for example, he spoke admiringly of Reagan for having
such a transformational impact, even if he disagreed with Reagan's

''Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a
way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill
Clinton did not," Obama said in January 2008. "He put us on a
fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.''

When Obama spoke about expanding access to health care, he vowed to finish what Democrats since Harry Truman had tried to do.

one speech, he invoked the memory of Lyndon Johnson signing Medicare
into law, with Truman at his side. "History shapes men," he recalled
Johnson saying that day in 1965, "but it is a necessary faith of
leadership that men can help shape history."

In another speech,
Obama signaled that he'd be such a leader. "I don't want to wake up
four years from now," he said in 2007, "and find out that millions of
Americans still lack health care."

Yet the Senate version of
health care legislation that Obama has endorsed would leave 23 million
without insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. With
the Democrats' loss of their 60th Senate vote, and with it their
filibuster-proof majority, it's unlikely that even this measure can get
through now even if Obama and the Senate could get the House of
Representatives to go along, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has
said won't happen.

How did Obama lose the chance, so far at
least, to enact the history-changing parts of his agenda after he won
the biggest popular majority of any Democrat since Johnson in 1964 and
came to office with big Democratic majorities in Congress?

He faced three main problems:

  • The recession forced him to spend time and political capital on a
    stimulus plan that may have reduced job losses, but didn't stop them.
  • A year-long fight over health care, with buyoffs for select lawmakers,
    looked like politics as usual, scared Americans already skeptical about
    a government racing deeper into debt and produced no results.
  • Obama misread the political landscape at home and abroad and overestimated his ability to bend people his way.

Reagan, by comparison, swept into office with a broad national
appetite for cutting taxes - a grassroots tax rebellion had started
earlier in California - and for a big buildup in defense spending;
Democrat Jimmy Carter already had started one.

With that mandate
and a less polarized Congress, Reagan focused on his core objectives
and was able quickly to push through the tax and defense policies that
helped shape his presidency and transform the country's politics.

also moved quickly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963
and his landslide 1964 victory to enact what he called the Great
Society - a sweeping expansion of civil rights legislation, coupled
with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the greatest expansion of
government social welfare since FDR.

"Obama in the end didn't
have that luxury," said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at
Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "The economy was such a mess, it
derailed the other domestic items on his agenda. And he had to use a
lot of domestic political capital on the stimulus. Now he's kind of
used up his window."

Whether Obama's $787 billion package of tax
cuts and spending stopped the economy from getting worse is hotly
debated. However, it hasn't transformed the country in the way that
Reagan turned a historic tide against big government, nor did it launch
a new era of government intervention into the economy comparable to

Much of the stimulus spending is on one-time
infrastructure projects such as road and bridge repairs rather than a
big change in government's role in society. Also, Obama's tax cuts are
temporary; Obama now proposes to extend them one more year.

wouldn't call it transformative because it's short-term," said Edwards.
"It's ephemeral and it's designed to be ephemeral. And, there's no
support for doing it again."

Further hurting his prospects,
Obama's stimulus, along with bank bailouts enacted under former
President George W. Bush, added to the national debt and helped create
new grassroots pressure against more government spending.

more, by reaching for so much in a bid to be a modern-day Reagan or
Roosevelt, Obama may have risked ending up more like a latter-day
Carter, with a Democratic Congress unwilling to follow him.

House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel thought the recession created a broad
but temporary opportunity to enact the entire Democratic agenda, and he
helped push Democrats from swing congressional districts to vote for
ambitious health care and global warming proposals, only to see them
watered down or left to die in the Senate.

"If he doesn't get
significant health care reform, it's going to be very difficult to
accomplish much domestically in the remaining three years of his term,"
said Richard Shenkman, an historian at George Mason University in

"He'll have the Carter problem. Members of Congress
will have taken very hard votes on this, and if there's no payoff,
they're going to look out for themselves and abandon him and his

Ultimately, Shenkman and others said, it's too early
to say for certain whether Obama will become a transformational leader.
They all agreed, however, that it looks less likely today than it did a
year ago.

Said Shenkman: "If I were making bets at this point,
aside from his election, I would very much doubt that he's going to be
much of a transformative figure."

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