(Indeed, one prominent political scientist offered this tidbit during a hallway chat, as long as I didn't identify him: his current research tentatively suggests that the slices of U.S. voters who are both the most knowledgeable and most ignorant about the political system are both Republicans; tying it all to their media consumption patterns.)
Obama's first two years were analyzed with aplomb by a panel of five which has just completed a book on the same topic. Reaching for a New Deal is supported by the Russell Sage foundation, a bastion of research in the social sciences and due out in August. It inspects Obama's initial legacy when it comes to health care reform, higher education, financial reform, labor law changes, immigration and environmental policy.
Moderator and co-author Theda Skocpol of Harvard University underscored how post-2008 election punditry declared we might be on the verge of a permanent Democratic majority, in part pointing to a big minority and youth turnout for Obama and a craving for government action amid the recession. "Things have not worked out according to the 'New New Deal' prognostication," she said, alluding to the cover line of the Nov. 24, 2008, Time magazine.
The reasons, the book will argue, include a perhaps unprecedented "pushback to change during these two years," and the de facto shift to the right of the nation's political center of gravity. That's despite Obama accomplishments she deems huge, such as health care reform, provoking experimentation via the "Race to the Top" gambit by the Department of Education, the stimulus and new financial industry regulations. To that extent, what's played out has poked holes in a frequent assumption of social scientists that economic crises promote reform. "Not necessarily," said Skocpol.
The "pushback," she and others contended, include a conservative "propaganda network's" ability to set the agenda for public discourse, in part through outright fabrications, like the beliefs that the health care package includes "death panels." But there was also criticism of Obama's administration for not making more visible and understandable to the average American what it was pulling off.
To that extent, one would have difficulty arguing with panelist Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, who studied the first two years' impact on higher education. She zeroed in on the seismic change in the student loan program, ending stratospheric subsidies to private industry via the traditional bank-based system of loans.
Mettler quoted one unidentified congressional staffer as conceding: "We have taken money from a vested interest and given it to low-income Americans. We don't do that often." But Mettler's point was clear, namely that few Americans realize the shift in what the Congressional Budget Office once estimated to be as much as $87 billion. The students themselves who are benefiting don't get that it is often-maligned government which is making their educations affordable, she said.