What's behind Obama's big shift
He is overseeing the boldest expansion of government in a generation. Is it a 'new pragmatism' right for the times or dangerous overreach by a young president?
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"There's a longstanding sense that pragmatism is the foundational American ideology, and Obama wants to be understood as a classic American pragmatist," says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But under these circumstances, I think aggressive pragmatism is the right term. The government now has a stronger whip hand than it has had in 30 years to recraft the American economy."Skip to next paragraph
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The big question surrounding Obama is whether his presidency will herald a new progressive era in American politics, much the way the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan launched a conservative era.
Obama's election with a solid majority of the popular vote and the Democrats' expanded majorities in both houses of Congress arguably give Obama even more power than Reagan had. Republicans never controlled the House during the Reagan years, though Reagan's successful wooing of conservative Democrats gave him a working majority.
By 2008, President Bush's deep unpopularity during most of his second term, because of Iraq and the mishandling of hurricane Katrina, and, by the end of the term, the collapse of the American financial system, made the election of a Democratic president likely. If Obama's fixes turn the economy around (or even if the economy turns around regardless of his measures), he will get the credit and head into his reelection campaign in 2012 in good shape. But it's far too early to speak of an "Obama era."
"Is this, in fact, the kind of hinge point in history where we go through a cycle of activist government – where the cast of mind of the country shifts and changes in a way that's considerably more liberal than it has been?" asks Peter Wehner, a political adviser in the second Bush White House.
"Another possibility is that Obama and Obamaism are a tonic for conservatives and the Republican Party, and he overreaches and governs with a mandate that he really didn't earn in the election, and that revives conservatism in a way that no one would have anticipated a year or two ago."
By one measure, a revival of conservatism does not appear imminent. In a poll released this month, Rasmussen Reports found that just 53 percent of Americans say that capitalism is better than socialism (with 20 percent choosing socialism and 27 percent unsure). Among adults under 30, the numbers are roughly even, with 37 percent preferring capitalism, 33 percent preferring socialism, and 30 percent undecided.
This blow to faith in capitalism is remarkable but understandable, given the state of the economy. And it's possible that capitalism regains favor as the economy recovers. But for now, charges from conservatives that Obama is a socialist or even Marxist (if you're Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck) are hardly hurting his job approval ratings, which are steadily above 60 percent.
William Galston, who served the Clinton White House as a domestic policy adviser, sees Obama as one click to the left of President Clinton. If Clinton was a centrist, operating on the conservative playing field established by two terms of Reagan and one term of George H.W. Bush, then Obama is center-left, says Mr. Galston, now chair of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.