It’s Up to Obama
Barack Obama’s election was analogous to neither Franklin Roosevelt’s nor Lyndon Johnson’s. His victory was more like Bill Clinton’s: Neither reflected a shift of the U.S. public in a progressive or liberal direction.
In 1992, Clinton made it over the top thanks to independent Ross Perot, who drew votes away from George H. W. Bush; then the 1994 mid-term elections brought the Republican Contract with America that retook the House of Representatives for conservatives. In 2008, independents were again decisive. Their movement to Obama, not growth in the number of voters identifying as Democrats or liberal, put the first African-American president in the White House. Obama won them by signaling a respect for business, emphasizing the ideal of “liberty” more than “equality,” re-describing political issues as practical problems, representing himself as the post-ideological pragmatist ready to meet those problems, and conveying impressive functional competence. By the end of his first year in office, many of these independents had moved back toward the Republicans. Independents are transients; their momentary alliance with the left hardly signaled a liberal resurgence.
If U.S. politics is to move in a progressive direction, it will do so not as a mere reflection of where we already are but only as a response to leadership. The question of the state of liberal or progressive thought at this historical juncture therefore depends significantly on what Obama does with his office.
Is Obama leading in this way? First, it should be acknowledged that moving citizens of this country in a progressive direction is a harder task now than it was for either Roosevelt or Johnson, the two predecessors who converted liberal electoral victories into liberal legislative agendas. With 25 percent of Americans out of work and another 10 percent only partially employed, Roosevelt faced an economy in worse shape than the one that greeted Obama. Nor, in 1933, had the country yet had its argument about big government. The meanings and consequences of growth in federal power remained obscure, so Roosevelt had more room for action in a progressive direction than Obama has had.
Johnson, in contrast to Roosevelt, benefited from the country’s postwar prosperity, although it was waning, and from Kennedy’s tax cut. Johnson was also in a unique position: He had already laid the foundations for his agenda with his work in the Senate, for instance on the 1957 civil rights bill. And for him, too, the most intense arguments about federal power lay still well beyond the horizon, in the Reagan years. Lastly, Johnson’s election did reflect a real realignment in American politics. When he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he remarked that the Democratic Party had thereby lost the South for a generation. But it had also gained: In the subsequent November election, Johnson took 61 percent of the popular vote, and Democrats won 68 seats in the Senate; true dominance. Clearly, Johnson’s powerbase was more substantial than Obama’s.
Yet the challenge of politics is always to meet one’s moment. Current conditions may not be as immediately amenable to movement in a progressive direction as in 1932 and 1964, but if Obama is a leader, and not simply an office-holder, he should be able to guide the public in a progressive direction nonetheless. Is he doing so? He has, by and large, not yet begun.
How do we know? The declining poll numbers are not the tell-tale sign; it’s instead the absence of a strong sense of direction. On the principle that a blueprint for one’s friends is equally a blueprint for one’s enemies, Roosevelt famously kept to himself the timing and nature of his tactical moves. But he showed everyone the target at which he was aiming: “A New Deal for the forgotten man.” So did Johnson: “The Great Society.” So did Ronald Reagan, preparing for reelection: “Morning in America.” Obama has yet to tell us where, under his leadership, we are heading. What evocative ideal can now energize progressive thought and action?
Before one can accurately describe the ideals that are the goal, one needs to know the starting point from which one will move toward their attainment. Just as a constellation looks different from the northern and southern hemispheres, so too is there a relationship between the right way of envisioning an ideal and one’s current position.
This year, 2010, differs fundamentally from 1933 and 1965; long-term change has brought us a different kind of polity. Three major demographic changes raise intellectual questions that must be answered en route to formulating the evocative ideals of a new progressive movement.
First of all, the role of religion in American life has changed significantly. We can date to the late ’70s the point at which older structures of American religious life, dominated by the large institutions of mainline Protestantism, gave way to a more fragmented and multi-faceted universe in which evangelical churches play a significant role. At the same time, among white Americans, religiosity and party affiliation have come into closer alignment. Fully 62 percent of “highly religious” white Americans are Republicans, while 28 percent are Democrats; conversely, 56 percent of “non-religious” white Americans are Democrats, while 28 percent are Republicans. In 1936 surveys, opinion of Roosevelt ran strongly positive among Catholics, Jews, and Baptists, tipped slightly negative among Lutherans and Methodists, and ran strongly negative among Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists. In other words, some highly religious voters were for him and some were against him. In contrast, Obama’s approval ratings run in inverse relation to the religious intensity of voters.
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