OCTOBER 5, 2012
IN THE WINTER OF 2009, the president was grasping for a phrase to sum up his agenda, a slogan that would capture his ambitions. He settled on the “New Foundation.” You didn’t need to be Ted Sorensen to understand that the phrase was straining too hard; and as the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told the president over dinner, it was a bit too evocative of a woman’s girdle. And yet, a new foundation is precisely what he has built.
Health care reform, if it is properly nurtured, largely completes the social safety net. Financial reform, if the lobbyists don’t shred it, will curb maniacal risk-taking in the markets. The stimulus provided the seed money to launch Race to the Top—perhaps the most significant wave of experimentation in the history of public education—and to remake the energy grid. It created industries from scratch: biofuel refineries and plants that manufacture batteries for electric cars.
Obamaism itself is perhaps this administration’s most important innovation. The president has used New Democratic means to achieve Old Democratic ends. In pursuit of old liberal dreams, he has relied heavily on the insights of markets: spurring competition, reforming bureaucracies, and leveraging small investments to achieve big goals. Two of his signal programs—health care’s individual mandate and cap and trade—were tellingly conceived by conservatives.
This approach helps explain, in part, why he has received insufficient political credit. It’s the stuff of technocracy, largely invisible to the public. But this invisibility is also President Obama’s fault. The president may have built a new foundation, but he hasn’t sufficiently made the case for it. Nor, crucially, has he crafted a sustained argument that might help erode the American aversion to government. (His convention speech barely mentioned health care reform, the essence of his legacy.) His oratorical and explanatory shortcomings have been maddening to watch, given the strengths he displayed in the 2008 campaign.
Of course, Obama’s pitch is hardly easy. His stimulus staved off depression—and prevented untold human suffering—but it wasn’t large enough to fully curb rising unemployment or spur a robust recovery. His administration’s response to the collapse of the housing market, in many ways the nub of the whole crisis, was particularly weak. By populating his administration with disciples of Robert Rubin and former denizens of the investment banks, he cloistered himself off from aggressive proposals—the kind that might have propped up homeowners with the same vigor that the government supported the banks.
The first term has a list of meaningful international accomplishments—chiefly his ruthless pursuit of Al Qaeda, the deft intervention in Libya, and the conclusion of the Iraq war. The president’s open hand to China and initial overtures to the Iranian regime have smartly been replaced by a new assertiveness. This willingness to change course has helped preserve American power in an era where it could easily have slipped away. But there have been times when Obama’s pragmatic impulses have yielded unfortunate policies. While his Cairo speech anticipated the Arab Spring, he never reaped the credit for his prescience, because he has largely sat on the sidelines as dictators have attempted to crush revolutions in Syria and Bahrain. His decision to authorize the surge in Afghanistan seems to have yielded few tangible results for the high cost of the operations in dollars and lives.
But these shortcomings do not compare with what his opponent might do if elected. Mitt Romney is the perfect avatar for a party in the throes of ideological convulsion. When he first considered running for president, in 2006, he seemed an archetype desperately missing from American politics. As a governor, he presented himself as a rigorous empiricist; his record formed a coherent pattern of bucking GOP orthodoxy on climate change, health care reform, and gay rights. But six years of pandering to Republican primary voters and donors will apparently distort even a first-rate mind. Far more than Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, he has promoted a libertarian vision filled with substantive and rhetorical hostility to the poor. His foreign policy is similarly wild, urging the escalation of military hostility with nations who pose no meaningful strategic threat.
At times, Barack Obama has failed to appreciate the virulence of the modern Republican Party. He has earnestly entered negotiations with adversaries interested in breaking his presidency, not splitting the difference. It took him painfully long to arrive at a realistic assessment of his foes. But over the course of this campaign, he has emerged as a different kind of politician—a populist bruiser capable of skillfully and passionately assailing his opponents, while remaining indifferent to the hand wringing of establishment opinion. Perhaps this is a style better suited for the next four years, in which his primary task will be managing a fiscal crisis that his opponents will cynically exploit. Having extended the safety net, he must now protect it. Without a second term, the accomplishments of his first would evaporate. This is not a poetic rallying cry, but there is human suffering to be minimized and a new foundation to defend.
This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Four More.”