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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.