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03.21.10

The Left's Fleeting Wins

Health-care reform is the signal liberal achievement of Obama’s presidency. Michael Kazin on why it might also be the last.

The long, exhausting march to health-care reform should remind us of a truth that ideologues on the right and left tend to ignore: Every liberal moment in modern American political history has been both hard-won and brief. Progressive Democrats came to power with Woodrow Wilson in 1913. They quickly passed a tough antitrust law, created the Federal Reserve System, allied with organized labor—and lost their congressional majority five years later. FDR won four straight presidential elections, but New Dealers no longer controlled Congress after the disastrous midterms of 1938. LBJ was wise to hurry lawmakers to enact his Great Society programs in the two years following JFK’s assassination. By 1966, the war in Vietnam and ghetto riots at home had given conservatives the upper hand—an advantage they have exploited ever since.

Obama will not go down in history as another Roosevelt or Johnson (and he prays the war in Afghanistan will not grow into another Vietnam).

The passage of health-care reform is the signal liberal achievement of Obama’s presidency—and may also be the last. But the president and his allies in Congress can also take heart from another historical parallel. In those earlier liberal moments, the policies Democrats were able to enact—from financial regulation and Social Security to civil rights and Medicare—quickly became popular enough to silence all but the most hidebound right-wing challengers.

More historians on Obama’s legacy nowAmerican voters, as two political scientists shrewdly noted in 1967, tend to be “ideological conservatives but operational liberals.” They dislike “big government,” but they adore any government policy that benefits them. Obama will not go down in history as another Roosevelt or Johnson (and he prays the war in Afghanistan will not grow into another Vietnam). But “Obamacare” will probably endure.

Michael Kazin is the author, most recently, of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan and is co-editor of Dissent.