Finally got around to reading Jon Chait’s piece on liberal disappointment a few days ago and now I’m really finally getting around to posting about it. I came to it by way of Booman, who has a response up about how Chait fails to draw a distinction between the liberal movements pre-Vietnam and post-Civil Rights and how that means he’s missing something. I dunno whether that’s true, but it isn’t what struck me about Chait’s piece.
Conor Friedersdorf has a post up complaining that Chait doesn’t take into account all that crap that Obama’s
pulled allowed to continue w/r/t foreign policy and I agree with what he says. At first, I thought that the stuff Friedersdorf raises was beyond the scope of Chait’s argument, but I’m now remembering that Chait takes a dig at Greenwald early on, and because Greenwald’s schtick is mostly foreign policy/security state, I think it’s fair game.
But here’s what stood out to me: on the last page, Chait writes about how liberals will never view Obama’s presidency the same way that conservatives view that of Reagan. Here’s how the article ends:
Did liberals really expect more? I didn’t. But when you dig deeper, liberal melancholy hangs not so much on substantive objections but on something more inchoate and emotional: a general feeling that Obama is not Ronald Reagan. Obama invited the contrast with Reagan himself when he noted during the campaign, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” And yet so far at least, this country does not feel fundamentally, systemically changed by Obama in the way that it is remembered to have been by Reagan.
But here again, memory is problematic. Reagan, you’ll recall, spent most of his administration raising taxes, signing arms-control treaties, and otherwise betraying right-wing dogma. Yes, his accomplishments were more substantive than Nixon’s or Clinton’s, but they were not quite the sweeping, nation-transforming stuff liberals enjoy recalling in horror. In terms of lasting change, Obama probably has matched Reagan—or, at least, he will if he can win reelection and consolidate health-care reform and financial regulation and tilt the Supreme Court further left than he already has.
And yet Obama will never match among Democrats Reagan’s place in the psyche of his own party, as reflected in the endless propaganda campaign to give him full credit for the end of stagflation and communism, the dogmatic insistence that everything the great hero said offers the One True Path for all time, and the project to name every possible piece of American property after him. Republican Reagan-worship is a product of a pro-authority mind-set that liberals, who inflate past heroes only to criticize their contemporaries, cannot match. If recent history is any guide, they are simply not capable of having that kind of relationship with a president. They are going to question their leader, not deify him, and search for signs of betrayal in any act of compromise he or she may commit. This exhausting psychological torment is no way to live. Then again, the current state of the Republican Party suggests it may be healthier than the alternative.
OK, first off, to steal Buzz Bissinger’s legendary line, it pisses the shit out of me when people claim that they didn’t expect anything more from Obama. I don’t believe them. I just don’t. Obama, despite the accomplishments that Chait lists in the article, some of which are substantial and for which he does deserve lots of credit, has been an abject disappointment in other areas (handling underwater mortgages, handling the banks, how he’s dealt with Republicans, how he’s crafted his rhetoric, the expansion of drone attacks, the expansion of our presence through Black Ops, etc). I just don’t believe that Chait isn’t on some level disappointed, especially w/r/t foreign policy. He comes from TNR, though, so I guess maybe not.
But beyond that, which is my own pet peeve, I think Chait’s is right that Obama will never be another Reagan. The reason for that, though, is not because liberals are ridiculous, hopeless dreamers who have persistently unrealistic expectations. It’s because Reagan has come to mean, at least to this liberal, so much more than his actual presidency. Reagan, even if he didn’t embody this at the time, is a one-word term for the transformation of the Republican movement. The Laffer curve, tax cuts raising revenue, the explosion in defense spending, the welfare queens bullshit, the preeminence of the greed is good mentality, Grover Norquist and ATR, Jack Abramoff & co, slashing income tax rates, screamingly large deficits, Heritage, Cato and Peter G Peterson.
That’s a list that isn’t all entirely attributable to Reagan and doesn’t end with him. But all of those people played a role in that era, that ethos, and they have dominated the past thirty years of our politics. Their vision of public policy has run this show and, even in the age of Chait’s (and my) credentialed and successful liberal president, they continue to run this show. To me, Reagan was the jumping off point for much of what I listed above, directly in some examples (Pete Peterson and voodoo economics) and indirectly in others (“greed is good” gone way overboard and Grover). Reagan was the catalyst for that transformation.
Will Obama be the liberal version of that? Maybe. I can’t imagine so, because FDR, who was truly transformational, had WWII to cow the opposition and American politics were just different then because Republicans weren’t congenitally insane. Even if Obama ends up being that guy, we won’t know for another few decades. As I said, I can’t see it. But the world is full of surprises and he may yet be our Randolph Scoooooooott.