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“The spokesman for the Department of Defence now has his own Twitter feed!” That thrilling news was imparted by a French journalist in a TV panel discussion this week. The continental Europeans on the panel all agreed that President Obama had “transformed” US politics. I challenged them to name one specific transformational accomplishment. Et voilà.
In fairness, my French counterparts underrated Mr Obama. In the year since his election, the President and the huge Democratic majority in Congress have done some substantial things. Obama did enact a huge fiscal stimulus at the beginning of his presidency. He continued the Bush policy of extending huge credits to troubled financial companies. He bailed out Chrysler and General Motors. (On Wall Street, the latter now carries the cruel nickname, “American Leyland”.) The trouble is that most of Mr Obama’s main accomplishments are things that he and his party never wanted to do. Worse (from the liberal point of view), they have consumed the political capital that he needed to accomplish the things he and his party did want to do.
The President hoped to pass a radical healthcare programme by the summer of 2009 and then move on to climate change and some kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Instead, the health care debate is staggering into 2010, climate change action remains stuck in committee and amnesty has dropped out of the discussion altogether.
Guantánamo Bay remains open for business. Uncloseted gays are still banned from the Armed Forces. US forces in Iraq still number 120,000. And 18 months after he visited the country, the President still has not decided on an Afghanistan strategy.
What he can offer his liberal supporters amounts to this: some modest symbolic executive actions (the US will again fund international aid organisations that support family planning) and a handful of small to mid-sized legislative changes: the time in which workers may bring pay discrimination suits has been extended; up to four million more will be enrolled in government health programmes for under-18s; and credit card companies will face new restrictions on lending practices.
Liberals have reacted to this with very restrained enthusiasm. Turnout among blacks and young people collapsed in elections this week.
The President’s defenders offer three excuses for this thin record. First, he has had to contend with a uniquely uncooperative Republican opposition. Second, he still has plenty of time left to accomplish great things, and third, the savage recession has cramped his freedom of action.
Excuse No 1 is true but irrelevant. The President’s party holds big majorities in both the House and Senate, the largest enjoyed by any president since Lyndon Johnson.
Excuse No 2 is plausible but probably false. A British prime minister atop a parliamentary majority wields as much power in Year 3 as in Year 1. Not an American president. His party almost always loses seats in Congress in the elections two years into his term. His authority over his party dwindles. There are exceptions to the rule–Franklin Roosevelt enacted the Social Security Act in Year 3 of his first term; Ronald Reagan passed an important tax reform in Year 2 of his second term–but not many.
Presidents who miss their moment, as Bill Clinton did in 1993, risk losing their impetus altogether: Mr Clinton did ultimately sign important laws, but the larger part of them were forced upon him by his opponents.
Excuse 3 is true but very dangerous for the President. Historically, important pieces of liberal legislation tend to be passed in times of economic growth and optimism. The one big liberal initiative of the Clinton years, the S-Chip programme that broadened government health coverage for under-18s, was passed in the prosperous year of 1997. Johnson’s Great Society programme was passed in the boom years 1964 and 1965. True, the Social Security Act was passed in the middle of the Great Depression, but note the year–1935. In 1934 the US economy grew by more than 10 per cent, in 1935 by almost as much, and most Americans confidently assumed that the Depression had been left behind.
By contrast, years of high unemployment tend to be conservative years: Gerald Ford launched the deregulation of the US economy in 1974-75; Jimmy Carter executed a right turn in 1979-80; Ronald Reagan broke unions and cut taxes in 1981-82. Many Democrats believe that they would have kept their congressional majority in 1994 if Mr Clinton had pushed a (conservative) welfare reform rather than his (liberal) healthcare programme in 1993.
Most economists expect high unemployment to continue into 2011. Households and businesses staggering through the recession will resist paying more for electricity to avert possible future climate change. Legislators–even liberal Democrats–confronting trillion-dollar deficits will flinch from costly spending initiatives. Mr Obama’s unspoken hopes to raise revenue via a new value added tax or carbon taxes will have to remain unspoken until incomes revive.
But don’t despair, British Obama fans! The irony is that the thwarting of his domestic programme may be the indispensable precondition of a successful Obama presidency.
My European co-panellists were not wrong to see Mr Obama as a transformational figure despite his thin record. He has made a huge change in the way people around the world think and feel about the US–and in how many alienated younger Americans think and feel about their own country. He is a walking, talking refutation of every defamation ever concocted by the enemies of US democracy, the best salesman since John F. Kennedy. He appeals not only because of his multi-ethnic, multicultural origins (although those certainly do not hurt), but because of his respectful, deliberative style.
Yet this face from the human future has tethered himself to policies from the dead statist past. This symbol of unity has for nine months governed in a cynically partisan way. (See, for example, his appointment of the Republican congressman John McHugh as Secretary of the Army–done with a view to poaching McHugh’s New York district for a Democratic successor, as indeed happened on Tuesday night.) To date, Mr Obama has not fulfilled his own potential–or delivered the presidency America needs. A dose of chastening defeat may prove the salvation of this presidency. Salvation or not, a dose of defeat is what this new, young President is already tasting.
David Frum is a resident scholar at AEI.
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