The Pivotal Presidency


My column assesses the impact of Obama after a year of political struggle, awful choices, and grinding, if as yet unacknowledged, success:

As with most attempts to judge Obama, a little perspective helps. So let’s review, shall we? This is the biggest single piece of social legislation in 40 years. The Congressional Budget Office predicts it will indeed insure 30m people.

And this is only the end of year one. In the stimulus package in the spring, Obama invested an unprecedented amount of federal money in infrastructure, with an unsung focus on non-carbon energy sources. He engineered a vast and nerve-racking banking rescue that is now under-budget by $200 billion because so many banks survived. He organised the restructuring of the US car industry. He appointed Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina Supreme Court justice, solidifying his non-white political base. If market confidence is one reason we appear to have avoided a second Great Depression, then the president deserves a modicum of credit for conjuring it. Growth is edging back into the picture.

No recent president has had such a substantive start since Ronald Reagan. But what Reagan really did was to shift the underlying debate in America from what government should do to what it should not. His was a domestic policy of negation and inactivism, and a foreign policy of rearmament and sharp edges. Obama has, in a mirror image of 1981, reoriented America back to a political culture that asks what government will now do: to prevent a banking collapse, to avoid a depression, to insure the working poor, to ameliorate climate change, to tackle long-term debt. The point about health insurance reform, after all, is that it represents a big expansion of government intervention in the lives of the citizenry and that’s a game-changer from three decades of conservative governance.

In some respects, the right, however unhinged, understands the importance of what Obama has accomplished more than the purist, whiny left.

Yes, this first year is marked more by the miracles of what didn't happen - a Second Great Depression, a Second 9/11, an Israeli strike on Iran, a banking collapse, a health insurance reform failure - than what did. And yes, Obama is on notice that, whatever the enormity of the mess he inherited, the opposition has no sense of responsibility for any of it and will blame him for everything and anything. All he has going for him is the American public's ability to see through the dust and fury to the realities beneath.

And Obama is changing those realities. More than most seem to currently grasp. This is liberalism's moment - its most fortuitous since 1964, its chance to prove that government is indeed needed at times, as long as it knows its limits, and the balance of the American polity needs active, intelligent government action now. What Obama is doing is trying to cement this new liberal era in the conservative institutional structure of American government.

Against massive, unrelenting, well-moneyed, ideologically manic opposition - and a fickle, purist, prickly liberal elite in his own party.

Well, no one said it would be easy.

(Photo: Jewel Samad/Getty.)