Foreign policy tells a similar story. Obama made some initial attempts to distinguish himself from his predecessor -- for example, he issued an executive order banning torture on his first day in office. But for the most part Obama has continued the policies of the George W. Bush Administration, effectively blunting any charges that he would be weak on terrorism. Indeed, in some respects Obama has gone further than Bush in promoting presidential power. He staged a brief war against Libya without congressional authorization. And he asserts the right to use unmanned drones to target and assassinate suspected terrorists around the world -- even if they are American citizens.
Finally, the comparative strength of the two parties' electoral coalitions suggests that we have not yet witnessed the birth of a new political regime. Like Clinton, Obama was seriously rebuffed in his first midterm election, with Democrats losing control of the House. Although long-term demographic shifts favor the Democrats, the Republican regional base in the South and Mountain West is still quite strong. In fact, opposition to Obama is so overwhelming in these areas that Obama might win the Electoral College by squeaking by in a number of battleground states but still lose the national popular vote. Incumbent presidents often increase their margin of victory in winning a second term, but that is not likely to happen in 2012. If Obama wins reelection, it will probably be by a narrow margin, and not by a landslide.
All these indications suggest that Obama, like Clinton, is a preemptive president. If so, then it will probably take a third Democratic presidency to finally end the age of Reagan. By way of comparison, it took three Republican presidents -- Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan -- to overcome the New Deal regime, and it took three Democrats -- Cleveland, Wilson, and FDR -- to break the Republican Party's long period of dominance after the Civil War.
Yet the question is not completely settled. Andrew Jackson, for example, did not really become a transformative president until after his reelection in 1832. In his second term, however, Jackson won a long struggle to dismantle the Bank of the United States, shifting politics in his party's favor for a generation.
Jackson's example suggests that a reconstructive Obama presidency, although unlikely, is still possible. Surely Obama has a remarkable record of accomplishments. The Affordable Care Act is the most important piece of domestic legislation since the 1960s. Of course, if Romney wins, the Republicans will probably dismantle most of Obama's reforms, including health-care reform. Obama needs a second term to secure his achievements.
One Shot at Greatness
If Obama does win reelection, he has one shot at truly remaking American politics. He has an ace in the hole, if he plays it correctly. Ironically, it comes from his presidency's darkest days -- the debt ceiling crisis of 2011.
It will not be easy. But if Obama can hold tough until January, he can strike a deal on entitlements, defense, and taxes that will favor Democratic priorities for a long time.
Because of the deal that ended the debt ceiling crisis, large cuts in defense and social programs will take effect at the beginning of 2013. That is also when the Bush tax cuts expire and the country returns to Clinton-era tax rates. But once that occurs, the baseline for political bargaining between the two parties will be totally different than it has been for the past 12 years. Without lifting a finger, the Democrats will have made the tax code more progressive and achieved major cuts in defense expenditures. And America will be well on the way to solving its deficit problems, as trillions of dollars of new revenues will come pouring in over the next two decades.
This new status quo is hardly ideal for the Democrats. There are cuts in reimbursements to Medicare providers and other reductions in social spending. Moreover, the combination of higher taxes and lower government expenditures may well send the economy into recession. But however unpleasant for Democrats, the new status quo is simply unbearable for most Republicans. And it drives a wedge between different parts of the Republican coalition. Defense contractors and hospital administrators will demand relief from the spending cuts, while the rich will demand lower taxes. But nothing will happen until Obama signs new legislation. And that allows Obama -- and his party -- to have a say about what tax reductions and expenditures are passed.
Commentators have warned that if nothing is done immediately, the country will go off a "fiscal cliff," but the term is actually a misnomer. Once the tax rates go up and the cuts begin, it will take some time for them to have a serious effect on the economy, and the tax increases can always be reversed retroactively. This gives Obama plenty of time to strike a deal, if he has the fortitude to wait.
What most observers don't realize is that, after January, Obama will enjoy an enormous bargaining advantage. He will start from a baseline of higher taxes, decreased defense expenditures, and increasing revenues that will shrink the deficit with each passing day. Obama will surely want to make some changes, especially in order to keep the economy healthy. But after the beginning of 2013, entitlement reform, tax reform, and long-term deficit control will become far easier, because any changes to the status quo will lower taxes instead of raise them and increase defense expenditures rather than cut them. Moreover, this time Obama knows that any agreement must include regular raises in the debt ceiling.
Republicans, who have previously been intransigent, will now feel compelled to negotiate in earnest, because doing nothing will cause different parts of their base to turn against them. Jonathan Chait sums it up well: Once the baseline for bargaining flips, "the Republican anti-tax crusade will be broken, and with it the pathology that has launched the deficit wars."
January 2013 is Obama's magic moment. He has a chance to break the Republican stranglehold on the country's domestic agenda and put Democratic policies in place. That is how Obama might become a transformative president -- or failing that, one of the most successful preemptive presidents in American history. But he will only get one shot at greatness, and he must take maximum advantage of it.
It will not be easy. There will be enormous pressure on Obama to cut a deal during the lame-duck session of Congress immediately after the election. Wavering Democrats fearful of a new recession will insist that Obama prevent the Clinton-era tax rates from ever going into effect. Centrist pundits will demand that Obama adopt the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction proposal, which is actually to the right of what he could probably get from the Republicans after January 2013.
But if Obama can hold tough until January, he can strike a deal on entitlements, defense, and taxes that will favor Democratic priorities for a long time. This would also increase the fissures in the Republican coalition, heightening the divisions between defense hawks, anti-tax ideologues, and deficit crusaders. And, to top it off, Obamacare will remain in place, and a guarantee of health care for Americans will become part of the social contract for the foreseeable future.