What It Will Take for Barack Obama to Become the Next FDR

First, he should let the United States go over the fiscal cliff. Then he should push filibuster reform.

Larry Downing/Reuters

Ever since Barack Obama's election in 2008, people have debated whether he might be for the Democratic Party what Ronald Reagan was for the Republicans -- a transformational president in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who changes the basic assumptions of national politics for a generation or more. In this essay, I draw on Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek's work on presidential leadership to answer this question and explain the challenges facing Obama if he wins a second term. (In a previous essay, I evaluated the prospects for a Mitt Romney presidency, which, I concluded would range from difficult to bleak). If Obama wins a second term, he still has a chance to be a transformative leader. But the odds are that he will be more like Bill Clinton--a Democratic president swimming against the tide of conservative politics ushered in by Reagan.

Obama has long had the ambition to be a great liberal president in the tradition of FDR. During the 2008 campaign, he acknowledged that the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had not changed the course of politics the way that Ronald Reagan had. That is no slight to Clinton, who was (and is) perhaps the most gifted politician of his generation. It is simply the case that Clinton faced a very different set of political constraints than Reagan did when he took office.

And this brings us to Skowronek's central insight. The course of a president's career is structured by where he sits in what Skowronek calls "political time." Is the president allied with the dominant regime in American politics or opposed to it? And is the regime itself robust or vulnerable? (See my essay on Romney for more details.)

Both Clinton and Reagan were oppositional leaders. Reagan opposed the New Deal politics of the Democratic Party that dominated the period from FDR's election in 1932 until 1980. Clinton opposed the conservative Republican regime that Reagan began and under which we still live today.

Reagan had the good fortune to take office when the New Deal regime and its electoral coalition were falling apart. Therefore, he had the opportunity to become what Skowronek calls a "reconstructive" president, one who sweeps away the old regime and its assumptions in order to create a new one. Bill Clinton, by contrast, entered the White House as the first Democrat elected since the Reagan Revolution, when the current conservative political regime was at its strongest. Unlike Reagan, whose political opponents were in disarray, Clinton faced a hostile political climate and continually had to trim his sails. Skowronek calls this situation a "preemptive" presidency, because the leader tries to forestall opposition by triangulating or finding a "third way." Examples of preemptive presidents include Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, and, of course, Clinton.

Preemptive presidents are the most interesting type in Skowronek's theory. In a political age dominated by the other party, they must continually navigate upstream against fierce political currents. Their political legitimacy is always in question. The regime's dominant party continually casts doubt on their right to rule, and their own party often seems too weak to defend them.

What is still unclear is whether the conservative regime that has dominated American politics for 30 years is exhausted, giving Obama the opportunity to begin a new one.

This predicament drives preemptive presidents to be pragmatic, compromising, non-ideological, and unorthodox. They triangulate in order to survive. As a result, preemptive presidents often deeply disappoint their own party faithful, who crave greater ideological purity and stronger principled stands. To members of their own party, it sometimes seems as if preemptive presidents never stand up for their principles; instead, they are always temporizing, compromising, and letting their political opponents push them around.

Preemptive leaders quickly learn that ideological purity will get them nowhere. They have no scruples about borrowing the best ideas of their political opponents, modifying them slightly, and then claiming them as their own. They specialize in offering more moderate (and hence more popular) versions of the dominant party's policies.

This practice may annoy members of their own party, but it drives members of the other party positively insane. The latter are quite certain that the preemptive president's pragmatism and moderation are merely a ruse, hiding a criminal conspiracy or a radical agenda. Indeed, preemptive presidents make members of the dominant party so angry that the latter often seem hellbent on destroying them. Think only of the conservative rage against Clinton and the liberal rage against Nixon.

The Course So Far: Preemption, Not Transformation

Obama, like Clinton, is a Democrat who assumed power during the Reagan-initiated regime. What is still unclear is whether the regime that has dominated American politics for 30 years is exhausted, giving Obama the opportunity to begin a new one. Put in Skowronek's terms, can Obama become a reconstructive president like Reagan or FDR, or will he end up as another preemptive president, like Clinton?

In 2008 Obama certainly campaigned as if he planned to be a transformative president. His campaign slogans of hope and change promised that old political assumptions would be swept away and that American politics would be placed on new foundations.

But once in office, Obama proved to be pragmatic and moderate. He did not govern as a repudiator. His signature legislative achievement, health-care reform, was largely based on conservative and Republican ideas. Even though a financial meltdown had triggered the Great Recession, Obama avoided populist denunciations of Wall Street and the banking industry. He promoted financial reforms far more limited than those most liberals in his party wanted. And he quickly abandoned climate-change legislation.

An important cause of Obama's moderation was the powerful opposition he faced from congressional Republicans. Republicans repeatedly used Senate filibuster rules to block Obama's appointments and legislative proposals; they repeatedly hampered his attempts to fix the economy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell candidly explained that his No. 1 priority was to deny Obama a second term. Despite this, Obama kept insisting that he wanted bipartisan cooperation, even when it was clear that none would be forthcoming.

Obama's calls for a new kind of politics did him little good. The Republican base doubted his right to rule, and conspiracy theories spread about his forged birth certificate, his secret Muslim faith, and his radical affiliations. The Tea Party formed soon after his inauguration, further radicalizing the Republican base. And the 2010 election seemed to demonstrate that the Republican coalition was far from exhausted: If anything, it had become even more powerful, angry, and extreme.

Matters came to a head in the debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011, when Republicans threatened to default on the nation's debts if Obama did not agree to their demands for spending cuts. As members of his own party looked on with increasing horror, Obama made concession after concession, at one point offering to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits in a grand bargain. But Republicans refused to take yes for an answer if it meant raising taxes by even a penny. At the last minute, a crisis was averted. Obama seemed politically humiliated. Yet by successfully putting off resolution of the big issues of spending and taxes until after the 2012 election, Obama bought himself time to plot a comeback. It was a Clintonian -- or even Nixonian -- strategy of political survival entirely consistent with a preemptive presidency.

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.

Obama needs to do one other thing, however, that will make his task much easier. He must champion reform of the Senate. The current combination of filibuster and hold rules limits effective legislative reform, and it makes it difficult for Obama to staff federal agencies -- like the new consumer protection agency and the Federal Reserve -- with experts who will promote his policies. It also prevents him from stocking the courts with new judges who agree with his constitutional values. As Reagan well understood, no transformation in political regimes is complete without a transformation of the executive branch, the independent administrative agencies, and the judiciary.

Democrats have little to gain from sticking with the existing Senate rules. If Mitt Romney wins and his party retakes the Senate, the Republicans will have few scruples about changing the rules of the game to promote their policies. McConnell has no intention of allowing current Majority Leader Harry Reid to do to him what he did to Harry Reid. Because some kind of Senate reform is inevitable, it is rational for the Democrats to benefit from it first, while they can.

Of course, if they retain control of the House in the 2012 election, Republicans have one last card to play: impeachment. Republicans have been trying their best to find a damaging scandal during Obama's first term, so far with little success. But the longer a presidency lasts, the greater the chances are that something will turn up, especially in a president's second term. And if a scandal takes off, Republicans can try to impeach Obama. Scandal and impeachment are serious dangers for preemptive presidents, whose legitimacy is usually already under siege. It is worth noting that of the three presidents who have either been impeached (Andrew Johnson, Clinton) or resigned under threat of impeachment (Nixon), all three were preemptive presidents (Johnson, a war Democrat, became president following Lincoln's assassination and quickly got caught up in a power struggle with a Republican Congress).

Finally, if Obama wants to make his influence lasting, he must work to create an economy prosperous enough to help ensure that a Democrat follows him in 2016. Preemptive presidents usually aren't succeeded by members of their own party, but reconstructive presidents often are. If another Democrat -- say, Hillary Clinton -- takes the oath of office in January 2017, that will be the strongest indication that, at least for the Democrats, it is morning in America. The Age of Reagan will be over, and the Age of Obama will have begun.