Douthat concedes that, in a certain respects, “Obama is already more like Reagan than he is like any other recent president of either party.” But much could change:
Reaganism’s ascendance wasn’t sealed by his re-election, let alone his first inaugural: It took 1988 to consolidate the rightward shift and 1994 to really ratify it. For now, Obama still awaits his George H.W. Bush (hey, Biden!) and his Newt Gingrich — and for that matter, he awaits his Clinton, because there’s a sense in which declarations of victory are less telling than statements of surrender. The moment when you knew that the age of Reagan would be remembered as a lasting political epoch didn’t come when Reagan declared that government is the problem in 1980; it came sixteen years later, when a Democratic president felt the need to open his re-election campaign with the Reagan-esque promise that “the era of big government is over.” In the same way, the clearest vindication of Obama’s presidency, if such a vindication comes, will probably take the form of a Republican president who sounds uncannily (if reluctantly) like him.
All those caveats are correct. But culture and timing also matter, in my view.
The first Reagan Inauguration had a real sense of a new cultural and psychological beginning. The hostages were freed, the “revolution” was begun, taxes were swiftly cut with Democratic support (the Dems were still a diverse party then even if the Republicans are not now). Yes, Reagan then plummeted in the polls in a Fed-induced recession – below Obama’s trough – before using Keynesian reflation as a spur to growth (and the first shoots of what is now our massive debt).
Obama’s first Inauguration was the same cultural-historical breakthrough; two new generations are bonded with him and three against the GOP; universal healthcare is as profound a change as permanently lower tax rates; ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will also allow for a peace dividend if the Pentagon and GOP don’t stand in the way. These years look likely to cement the integration of gay people in America and the beginning of the end of marijuana Prohibition. They also show a shift toward reining in the excesses of conservative hubris – unfunded wars and entitlements, abuse of capitalism, and reckless adventurism abroad. Reagan was also unimaginable without Carter. And I think Bush-Cheney’s legacy will very soon seem far, far worse than Carter’s.
Yes, at some point he has to win over the other side, which takes time. From Thatcher’s first four years to Blair was an eternity; Ditto Reagan to mid-Clinton. But have you noticed the fizzling of the anti-gay rhetoric from the GOP in the campaign? Do we have a potential Republican defense secretary who will treat Israel as a critical ally rather than as a 51st state? Can you imagine Bobby JindalMarco Rubio endorsing women in combat before Obama’s re-election?
Obama has yet to have an Iran-Contra. But he has also yet to have a Reykjavik. No one with any good sense and historical understanding will predict anything with confidence. But I think our first black president, who saved us from the economic fate of Europe and Britain, who legislated healthcare for all, who changed politics and campaigning for good through the web, and who is slowly watching his political foes crumble – from Netanyahu to Cantor … well, he may eclipse Reagan at some point. May. If Iran turns on his watch and democracy stabilizes in Egypt, the game is over. But he has been history from the get-go.
My previous thoughts on the subject here.