06.27.10

Obama's Unbelievable Winning Streak

So he hasn’t plugged the leak, and his poll numbers are sagging. Truth is, Obama has exceeded in 18 months what Clinton and Carter achieved in a combined 12 years.

I know this is supposed to be Barack Obama’s summer of discontent. The oil spill is still gushing; the economy is still floundering; the Afghan war is deteriorating; Americans don’t find him so charming anymore. But have you noticed that when it comes to actual policy, he keeps racking up the wins? This week it was financial-regulatory reform. One can argue about whether the bill the Senate passed will truly change the way Wall Street operates, but off the top of your head, can you name a more significant piece of progressive legislation signed by either of the last two Democratic presidents? Neither can I. And that goes for Obama’s stimulus package and his health-care reform as well. All of which means that, legislatively at least, Obama has exceeded in 18 months what Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter achieved in a combined 12 years. By summer’s end, he’ll also have shepherded two young liberal justices on to the Supreme Court.

Even as Republicans claim political momentum, the country is in the midst of a major shift leftward when it comes to the role of government.

Even on the foreign-policy front, Obama has been meeting with success. He’s gotten Beijing to revalue its currency, which has been a goal of America’s China policy hands for several administrations now. He’s gotten China and Russia to back new United Nations sanctions against Iran, and he’s dramatically improved relations between Washington and Moscow, drawing Russia closer to the West and further from China, which once looked like its emerging strategic partner.

To be sure, the summer of 2010 could go down as the moment Obama doubled down on his dubious Afghan war strategy, bringing in David Petraeus and thus tipping the bureaucratic balance against a significant troop withdrawal next year. And it could go down as the moment when the oil spill and the recession lost him his majority in Congress. But even if Obama never manages another legislative victory, he’ll already have pulled off one of the most impressive opening acts in American political history. The question is why we’re paying so little attention.

The answer is that the media views policy through the lens of politics. Unless a policy victory brings political benefits—rising poll numbers, better prospects for the next elections—it is not treated as a big win. Thus, the Tea Party movement is considered an ominous sign for Obama, evidence that the country is turning against him. But the reason that the Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin crowd is so angry is that Obama has expanded the federal government’s relationship with the private sector in fundamental ways. In political terms, the Tea Party movement may be a sign of Obama’s weakened position, but in policy terms, it is a testament to his success. As shrewd conservatives like David Frum recognize, the current mood of Republican optimism is wildly misplaced. When Republicans refused to compromise with Obama on health care, they gambled that he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, push through reform with only Democratic support. Then, when he did, they insisted that he was destroying his chances of passing future legislation. Now he’s proved them wrong again. So what if Obama’s legislative success prompts a backlash that buys the GOP a few more seats this fall? As Frum has asked pointedly, was it a win for the Republicans because after Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare they picked up seats in the midterm elections of 1966?

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The larger truth is this: Even as Republicans claim political momentum, the country is in the midst of a major shift leftward when it comes to the role of government. That shift is playing itself out from infrastructure to health care to finance and perhaps eventually to the environment. No one knows whether these shifts will revive the U.S. economy and lay the foundation for stable, broad-based growth, just as no one could predict the impact of the rightward turn in American policy in the early 1980s. Decades later, liberals and conservatives still disagree about whether Reagan’s reforms changed America for good or ill. What they don’t disagree about is the fact that they fundamentally changed America. Those changes made Reagan one of the most consequential presidents in American history. Eighteen months in, it’s a good bet that historians will say the same about Barack Obama.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.