Obama’s Era of Decline: How Will He Manage Debt Crisis, Tea Party, GOP?

The president will be defined by how he manages U.S. decline and whether he can change the GOP. By Peter Beinart.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

The decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade America’s credit rating marks the clearest sign yet that we have entered a new era in American politics.

In retrospect, the dominant political reality of the Clinton years was the culture war, a struggle over what kind of nation America would be once being anticommunist ceased being a meaningful national identity. Politics in the Bush years was dominated by the “war on terror,” the right’s effort to reenact the Cold War struggle and the left’s recovery of its own antiwar tradition in response.

For liberals, the Obama years were supposed to mark a return to progressive government activism, a latter-day Great Society. But the Great Society, it’s crucial to remember, was launched in the mid-1960s, at the high noon of American optimism about our position in the world. What destroyed it, among other things, was the painful realization, by the early 1970s, that American resources were more finite, and America’s international position more fragile, than Johnson and his whiz-kid advisers had understood. Similarly, it is now clear that today’s political environment is less like the early and mid-1960s, that era of liberal optimism—or even the 1980s, which were dominated by Reagan’s conservative optimism—than by the deeply pessimistic 1970s. President Obama, like presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, will be defined by how he manages the politics of decline.

Winning reelection is not the hardest part. While any president would prefer to run in boom time, it’s possible to win reelection with the country in a down mood. Richard Nixon won big in 1972, for instance, at a time of deep and convulsive national unhappiness. He did so by beginning to withdraw American ground troops from Vietnam, but also by blaming the nation’s unhappiness on his enemies in the antiwar, feminist, black-power and counterculture movements, which he hung around the neck of Democratic nominee George McGovern.

We don’t yet know whether the Republicans will nominate their own version of McGovern—an ideological activist like Michelle Bachmann—or an establishment, it’s-my-turn, figure like Mitt Romney. But either way, Obama’s likely reelection strategy echoes Nixon’s: tie his opponent to the most extreme elements of his or her party, and blame him or her for the country’s woes.

That’s also what Bill Clinton did in 1996, when he defeated Bob Dole by running against Newt Gingrich. The debt deal makes that task easier, since most Americans appear to have blamed the Republican Congress—and the Tea Party in particular—rather than the White House.

Obama’s numbers—which now hover in the low 40s—are worryingly low. If they dip into the 30s and stay there, he’ll be in serious trouble. But if he can inch back to the middle and high 40s, he’ll have a reasonable shot at reelection given that, according to a recent New York Times poll, only 20 percent of Americans approve of the Tea Party and Congress’ approval rating is even lower than that. And whoever the Republicans nominate, those are the institutions Obama will be running against.

But even if Obama can win, the crucial question is, Can he win big enough to change the GOP? The single factor most contributing to American decline is the Republican Party’s theological opposition to raising taxes, a theology with Ronald Reagan as its patron saint, even though Reagan himself raised taxes several times as president.

In the short term, America needs stimulus. But in the longer term, virtually every graybeard ex-senator and blue-ribbon panelist agrees that the only way to confront our frightening national debt is to cut health-care spending, cut defense, and raise taxes, beginning by letting some or all of the Bush tax cuts expire.

The last is crucial for two reasons. First, because the Bush tax cuts really do constitute a large part of America’s structural deficit. But second, because as the debt-ceiling negotiations showed, taxes are the key to any grand bargain that involves cutting entitlements.

To the left’s dismay, President Obama and other mainstream Democrats have shown themselves quite willing to cut Medicare and Social Security, long the Democratic Party’s red lines. But it’s sheer fantasy to imagine Democrats doing that in a major way without some corresponding Republican compromise on taxes. If the Democratic Party agreed to large entitlement cuts without any revenue increases, it would so betray its reason for existence as to make likely its eventual replacement by another party of the left.

Obama’s real challenge, therefore, is not merely to win, but to win convincingly enough that he provokes a reassessment on the other side of the aisle, a Republican version of the Democratic Leadership Council that challenged liberal orthodoxies in the wake of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s victories in the 1980s. Unless that happens, Americans may be living with the politics of decline for a very long time.