Saturday, December 13, 2008

Can Obama Be A Transformative President?

Listening to conservatives whine that America is a "center-right" country in spite of the recent election has me reflecting about Ronald Reagan as well as pondering what makes a transformative presidency. During the Reagan era, liberals like me frequently complained that America really wasn't that conservative. We cited polls that illustrated the American people really preferred the Democrat's policies on issues ranging from healthcare to nuclear weapons and only supported Reagan because of his "personality."

Yet Reagan got his way, America moved to the right and his presidency is regarded as transformative. Reagan was a transformative president because he laid the foundation in which America's center of political gravity remained to the right for a quarter century with respect to economic, social and foreign policy. Even two terms of a Democratic Bill Clinton presidency did not alter America's conservative course regarding de-regulation and raging privatization.

Transformative presidencies with broad popular support like Reagan's are rare. The Reagan model was to nurture an above partisanship veneer while aggressively waging partisan warfare and exploiting racial cultural subtexts. Presidents that successfully thread the needle between partisanship and statesmanship achieve an exceptional leadership nexus and transform the center of political gravity as Reagan did. In achieving this leadership nexus, Reagan was able to prosecute class warfare from the top and still enjoy popular support from America's middle class.

A more positive example of this transformative leadership model is liberal Franklin Roosevelt. Both Roosevelt and Reagan enjoyed the support of key core constituencies that strongly identified each with their respective parties. Yet both Roosevelt and Reagan were also perceived as being far above the body politic while their administrations ruthlessly engaged in partisan combat. As we liberals note with fondness and gratitude, Roosevelt shifted the center of political gravity in a manner that grew and nutured the middle class. Even two terms of a Republican Dwight Eisenhower presidency did not alter the body politic's support for Roosevelt's New Deal. Remarkably, both Roosevelt and Reagan retained the support of white working class blue collar voters.

From the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has assidiously laid the foundation to become a transformative figure. One who retains the enthusiasm of his core supporters while simultaenously appearing inclusive and respectful to the entire body politic. I must admit that following Bill Clinton's triangulation and George W. Bush's partisan reign of indecency, I saw little benefit to this approach.

Hence, my initial preference for John Edwards who adopted the Theodore Roosevelt model: progressive change by aggressively taking on the entrenched forces of America's kleptocracy. Before the Iowa caucuses (remember that?!?) the Edwards approach made far more sense to me than Obama's fight fire with water persona or rewarding Hillary Clinton's efforts to be the custodian of her husband's pro-corporatist/pro-war political machine. Ultimately, Edwards was unable to compete against the celebrity power of Clinton or Obama and as it turned out his personal failings would have doomed his candidacy anyway.

Nearly a year after Iowa, as I observe Obama during the transition I can envision the potential for a transformative presidency. Reagan appointed political figures that were reassuring to the establishment and upset his core supporters such as his Chief of Staff James Baker. Similarly, Obama has picked some figures for his inner circle that don't thrill me such as Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geitner and ironically, Hillary Clinton.

Yet as we analyze the policy direction we're likely to see in the coming years, dramatic progressive domestic change will take place. Obama has signaled his committment to invest heavily in infrastructure and tackle global warming with his "green team." His nomination of Tom Daschle as Secretary of Health and Human Services also suggests a committment to healtchare reform as a component of a comprehensive economic recovery plan.

With respect to foreign policy, Obama's national security team of Hillary Clinton at the State Department, National Security Advisor James Jones and the retention of Robert Gates at the Pentagon concerns me greatly. Hopefully, this team will give Obama the political cover he needs to leverage Israel to the bargaining table and nuture a foreign policy that transitions America from its imperial ambitions of empire and instead forms sensible coalitions. If it turns out Clinton, Gates and Jones enable Obama to preside over a shift in our geopolitical paradigm then a liberal transformative presidency is not out of reach.

Sadly, the cascading global economic crisis, the ticking time bomb of global warming and weak national governments such as Israel, India and Pakistan that preside in powder keg regions means anything less than a transformative presidency will result in more calamity, destitution and turmoil. Of course greatness does not stem from times of tranquility.

1 comment:

christian_left said...

Hmmm...I'm not sure that I share your optimism at this point, especially given the new cabinet appointments since you posted this. Let's see--"green team"? Well maybe a few of them, but Vilsack at Agriculture and Salazar at Interior are great disappointments and will threaten to undermine efforts at environmental sustainability. I just read that Salazar wants to continue pushing fossil fuel development and the National Mining Association praising him. And Vilsack is hardly likely to be a visionary at Agriculture (just ask the sustainable agriculture folks in Iowa). Obama's been no FDR so far--more Clinton's third term (and actually Clinton's initial high-level appointments were probably better).

Thought experiment: If Hillary Clinton had been elected and were making these picks, the Progressive Left would be throwing a fit just about every other day.

I'd like to be as hopeful as the next person. But nothing depresses me more than the paralysis of the Progressive Left in deference to Saint Obama. He is certainly capable of doing great things, but he is not going to move that way without a lot of movement pressure.