Liberals of the writer’s generation have done enough soul searching. Now it’s conservatives’ turn—and may it last a good long time!
Istill remember January 1985 quite well. I was one of those young, dime-a-dozen Capitol Hill aides, answering a junior Democratic congressman’s constituent mail. I was as far down the totem pole as you could go, but I had somehow come into possession of a Capitol Hill parking pass, which allowed me to deposit my little Ford Fiesta on the street right by the Longworth House Office Building every morning. I’d left it there over the weekend in awful winter weather. On Inauguration Day, a Monday, as Ronald Reagan took the oath for his second term, the Capitol Police wanted us to get our cars out of the way, but mine and the others were buried under a wall of plowed snow. I spent the day shoveling in zero-degree weather and making no progress—a pretty apt metaphor, I thought, for the party I was working for at the time.
It was a low point for liberalism, all right, and not because of the snow. Reagan went on to have a rocky second term in some respects: The Iran-Contra scandal may not have lived on in the collective memory like Watergate has, but it was real and debilitating. Even with that, though, he never really lost the goodwill of the majority, and in that term he did the two big things he wanted to do. He passed sweeping tax-reform legislation, lowering the top marginal rate from 50 to 28 percent (having already lowered it from 70 to 50 percent in his first term). And he consummated a meaningful arms deal with Mikhail Gorbachev. I might add that while he ran up then-massive deficits that today’s conservatives like to forget about, he did preside over a generally upbeat economy. The America of January 1989, when he left Washington, was a very different place than it had been eight years prior.
So here we are in another Washington January with another President getting ready to launch his second term. We all agree that Reagan was transformational, whether we liked the transformations or not. Can Barack Obama be the same? Will the political class agree, by January 2017 as he flies back to Chicago, that Obama was a Democratic Reagan?
That’s an awfully high bar in today’s political climate. Reagan didn’t face anything like the opposition Obama does. Nevertheless, there are concrete reasons to hope—and believe—that Obama can move the center of gravity in our politics to the left in ways that Bill Clinton could not (no fault of Clinton’s, it’s just that the circumstances that exist today didn’t exist in his time). If Obama can notch four accomplishments—economic recovery, immigration reform, prudent health-care implementation, and one foreign-policy achievement—then those, combined with demographic change and conservative incoherence, should bring the era of conservative dominance, which Clinton battled gamely but couldn’t quite defeat, to an end.
The economy. The signs began to mount in September and October that the economy really was in recovery. With all the usual caveats about Europe and so forth, we have every reason to believe that these next four years are going to be years of recovery and perhaps even real prosperity.
Let’s permit ourselves to imagine, then, that by the end of this year, the private-sector economy will be adding more than 200,000 jobs a month. Now, we need to add around 350,000 jobs a month to get the jobless rate back under 6 percent in three years. Economically, substantively, that’s where we’d like to be. But politically, it’s hardly as if Obama will be penalized if he leaves office with an unemployment rate of, say, 6.5 percent. Indeed he’ll be hailed. He’ll be the President who lifted the country out of its worst economic crisis in 80 years.
Remember Clinton’s math from his convention speech? In 28 years in power since 1960, Republican presidents have created 24 million jobs. In 24 years, Democratic presidents have presided over the creation of 42 million jobs. Four years from now, the number of years will be even at 28. The country will need to average only 125,000 jobs a month for four years for the Democratic number to hit 48 million in 28 years—or exactly twice the GOP total. Moody’s Analytics forecasts an average gain of 250,000 jobs a month over the next four years (through October, we averaged 157,000 jobs per month in 2012). If we end up with something in between these two figures, there should be little question by 2016 in the minds of most voters that progressive economic policies work and conservative ones don’t.
The above is admittedly speculative, and none of it will just happen. The Administration—and, importantly, the Federal Reserve—needs to pursue the policies that can help make it happen: some form of stimulus (however indirect, given nearly certain GOP opposition), progressive tax reform, adequate public investment, and so on.
The broad point is this: The next four years seem at this moment far more like an opportunity than a burden—and the opportunity is to bury trickle-down economics once and for all and replace it with a kind of “middle-out” economics that privileges investing in the middle class first. The President embraced this argument during the campaign. We at Democracy are proud to have contributed to it (see “Growth and the Middle Class,” Issue #20). More than that, our board members Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu coined the term middle-out economics, a phrase Obama himself took to using on the stump.
Immigration reform. After the election, the immigration-related talk was all about the Republicans, and whether they could improve their levels of support from Latino voters by embracing reform. They undoubtedly would if they did so. But all of these conversations conveniently forgot that it would be Obama who’d be signing the bill into law.
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