In a way, you have to give President Obama credit. In the face of manifest public opposition to most of his high-profile policies — the health-care bill, the automobile company takeovers, cap-and-trade, higher government spending — he pressed on and passed much of his ambitious, unpopular agenda. He said he’d rather be a “really good one-term president” than a “mediocre two-term president.” He may still escape that choice. But he certainly demonstrated that he was willing to sacrifice dozens of Democratic congressional seats in order to get a permanently larger federal government.
Obama came in on a wave of good feeling. But he and his colleagues over-interpreted his victory — in the wake of Obama’s election, Bill Clinton declared, “We have entered a new era of progressive politics which, if we do it right, can last 30 or 40 years” — and overreached.
The administration sought to use the financial crisis to implement an agenda that wouldn’t have been plausible in calmer times. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” was Rahm Emanuel’s keynote. Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan and Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine had examined how crises often lead to dramatic changes in policy, but never before had senior officials declared the shock doctrine as their strategy.
A few libertarians, disgusted with the Bush Republicans and two foundering wars, supported Obama in 2008. No doubt they were surprised to find Obama tripling our troop commitment in Afghanistan and making plans to stay in Iraq as far as the eye can see. They and some of the president’s liberal supporters are also disappointed that he has not taken steps to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act or ratcheted down the war on drugs. I think it’s fair to say that his real ambition was to dramatically expand the size, scope and power of the federal government and that he saw these other issues as distractions.
Obama wanted to be FDR, with a sweeping agenda that transformed both the federal government and the shape of politics. After the repudiation of the 2010 election, he’s being urged to be Bill Clinton, to recognize the political obstacles to his sweeping goals and learn to work with Republicans on modest reforms. The danger is that he may end up like Lyndon Johnson, with an ambitious domestic agenda eventually bogged down by endless war.
As David Paul Kuhn wrote at RealClearPolitics, Obama’s activist agenda “has revived the enduring American challenge to the state.” Some of us hope that that revival of the small-government impulse in American politics — after the desert of the Bush years — will be President Obama’s most lasting legacy.