The New Liberalism: How the Economic Crisis Can Help Obama Redefine the Democrats
Monday 17 November 2008
by: George Packer, The New Yorker
When the reporter pressed Roosevelt to offer a vision of his own historical opportunity, he gave two answers. First, he said, America needed “someone whose interests are not special but general, someone who can understand and treat the country as a whole. For as much as anything it needs to be reaffirmed at this juncture that the United States is one organic entity, that no interest, no class, no section, is either separate or supreme above the interests of all.” But Roosevelt didn’t limit himself to the benign self-portrait of a unifying President. “Moral leadership” had a philosophical component: he was, he said, “a liberal.” The election of 1932 arrived at one of those recurring moments when “the general problems of civilization change in such a way that new difficulties of adjustment are presented to government.” As opposed to a conservative or a radical, Roosevelt concluded, a liberal “recognizes the need of new machinery” but also “works to control the processes of change, to the end that the break with the old pattern may not be too violent.”
That November, Roosevelt defeated President Herbert Hoover in a landslide. His election ended an age of conservative Republican rule, created a Democratic coalition that endured for the next four decades, and fundamentally changed the American idea of the relationship between citizen and state. On March 4, 1933, Roosevelt was inaugurated under a bleak sky, at the darkest hour of the Great Depression, with banks across the country failing, hundreds of thousands of homes and farms foreclosed, and a quarter of Americans out of work.
In defining his idea of the Presidency, Roosevelt had left himself considerable room for maneuvering. His campaign slogan of a “new deal” promised change, but to different observers this meant wildly different things, from a planned economy to a balanced budget. “Roosevelt arrived in Washington with no firm commitments, apart from his promise to ‘try something,’ ” the Times editorialist Adam Cohen writes in his forthcoming book, “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America.” “At a time when Americans were drawn to ideologies of all sorts, he was not wedded to any overarching theory.”
Barack Obama’s decisive defeat of John McCain is the most important victory of a Democratic candidate since 1932. It brings to a close another conservative era, one that rose amid the ashes of the New Deal coalition in the late sixties, consolidated its power with the election of Ronald Reagan, in 1980, and immolated itself during the Presidency of George W. Bush. Obama will enter the White House at a moment of economic crisis worse than anything the nation has seen since the Great Depression; the old assumptions of free-market fundamentalism have, like a charlatan’s incantations, failed to work, and the need for some “new machinery” is painfully obvious. But what philosophy of government will characterize it?
The answer was given three days before the election by a soldier and memoirist of the Reagan revolution, Peggy Noonan, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Something new is happening in America. It is the imminent arrival of a new liberal moment.” The Journal’s editorial page anticipated with dread “one of the most profound political and ideological shifts in U.S. history. Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven’t since 1965, or 1933. In other words, the election would mark the restoration of the activist government that fell out of public favor in the 1970s.” The Journal’s nightmare scenario of America under President Obama and a Democratic Congress included health care for all, a green revolution, expanded voting rights, due process for terror suspects, more powerful unions, financial regulation, and a shift of the tax burden upward. (If the editorial had had more space, full employment and the conquest of disease might have made the list.)
For the first time since the Johnson Administration, the idea that government should take bold action to create equal opportunity for all citizens doesn’t have to explain itself in a defensive mumble. That idea is ascendant in 2008 because it answers the times. These political circumstances, even more than the election of the first black American to the highest office, make Obama’s victory historic. Whether his Presidency will be transformative, in the manner of Roosevelt and the handful of predecessors named by F.D.R. in 1932, will depend, in part, on history-it’s unclear whether today’s financial troubles will offer a political challenge, and an opportunity, of the magnitude of the Great Depression. But the power of Obama’s Presidency will ultimately hinge on how he chooses to interpret the “modern application” of liberalism in the twenty-first century.
During the two years that he spent campaigning for the Presidency, amid relentless media scrutiny, Obama made a greater commitment to specific plans than Roosevelt did. Yet he, too, represented different versions of moral leadership to different groups of voters, at various stages of the campaign. Roosevelt’s answer to his interviewer reflected a belief that the Presidency has both a political role and a philosophical role. Obama, using the language of the modern age, has reflected Roosevelt’s belief: there is the “post-partisan” Obama and the “progressive” Obama. Some tension exists between these two approaches, but he will have to reconcile them if he is to fulfill his ambition of bringing profound change to the country.
Ask yourself what thinkers and ideas Reagan took with him to the White House and the answer comes pretty quickly: Milton Friedman, George Gilder, supply-side economics, anti-Communism. Bill Clinton’s Presidency was ushered in by a shelf of books and papers under the not entirely convincing rubric of the Third Way, espoused by policy wonks called New Democrats. I recently asked a number of people who know Obama, both within and outside the campaign, to name a few books and ideas that will help shape his Presidency. None of them could give me an answer. It’s strangely difficult to identify what the intellectual influences on this cerebral and literary politician have been.
David Axelrod, the chief strategist behind Obama’s victory, described Obama’s influences as “very eclectic.” He went on, “He’s a guy who reads very widely-he reads opinion on the right and left, and scholarly treatises of the right or left. I don’t think he’s in the left-wing or right-wing book club. I think he’s willing to draw from everywhere.” Unlike Reagan, Obama has no clear, simple ideology. People who have observed him in meetings describe a politician who solicits advice and information from a variety of sources, puts a high value on empirical evidence, and has the self-assurance to reach his own conclusions. A word that comes up again and again, from Obama himself and from people who know him, is “pragmatic.”
Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor and author, was Obama’s colleague for many years at the University of Chicago Law School. Sunstein’s most recent book, “Nudge,” co-written with the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, tries to find a new path between governmental control and the unfettered free market. “Nudge,” Sunstein said, is about “ways of helping people to make better choices without requiring anybody to do anything. It’s a conception of government that is reluctant to impose mandates and bans but is kind of shrewd about enlisting what we know about human behavior in good directions.” Sunstein added that the book is well known in Obama’s circle; Obama’s top economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, also of the University of Chicago, has read it, and Sunstein has discussed its ideas with Obama. In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama included a proposal from Sunstein and Thaler that would have employees automatically enrolled in retirement plans, with the option not to participate, because “evidence shows that by changing the default rule, employee participation rates go up dramatically”-a non-coercive “nudge” toward better decisions. “He knows an astonishing amount about cutting-edge economic thinking,” Sunstein said.
Sunstein’s Obama is the post-partisan one. He calls Obama a “visionary minimalist,” meaning someone who wants to pursue large goals in a way that offends the deepest values of as few people as possible. Governing in this way would make him distinctly un-Rooseveltian. F.D.R. entered office with broad good will and a platform that offered almost all things to all people, but by the time he ran for reëlection in 1936 his Presidency had become aggressively partisan: he attacked “economic royalists” and said of them, “They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred.” In 2007, Paul Krugman, the Times columnist who recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics, commended these remarks to Obama, advising him to sharpen his ideological edge, and warning that his search for common ground with Republicans would be his undoing. But Sunstein said of Obama, “I think he believes-and this is his big split from Krugman-that if you take on board people’s deepest commitments, or bracket them, show respect for them, then you make possible larger steps than would otherwise be imagined.” It would not be Obama’s way to trumpet the arrival of a new era of liberalism-a word, Sunstein said, that is too laden with baggage, and too much of a fighting word, for Obama’s taste.
Instead, Sunstein suggested as the governing philosophy of an Obama Presidency the idea of “deliberative democracy.” The phrase appears in “The Audacity of Hope,” where it denotes a conversation among adults who listen to one another, who attempt to persuade one another by means of argument and evidence, and who remain open to the possibility that they could be wrong. Sunstein pointed out that “deliberative democracy” has certain “preconditions”: “It requires an educated citizenry, a virtuous and engaged citizenry that has sufficient resources-and Madison sometimes spoke in these terms-that they could actually be citizens, rather than subjects.” Obama links the concept with Lincoln, who was as consequential a President as Roosevelt but in ways that were less obviously partisan and ideological. In his first inaugural, just five weeks before Southern militiamen fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln urged his countrymen, “Think calmly and well, upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it.”
“The Audacity of Hope,” written during Obama’s first year in the Senate, with the clear aim of laying the groundwork for his Presidential candidacy, has been criticized for burying the more revealing voice of his memoir “Dreams from My Father” under a politician’s blizzard of evenhanded, unobjectionable judgments. But, as campaign books go, it’s a good deal more fluent and thoughtful than the genre requires. In it, Obama, who was born in 1961, presents himself as someone young enough not to be defined by the terms and battles of the sixties. His political consciousness was shaped in the eighties, and he opposed Reagan’s agenda while nonetheless understanding its appeal, given the failure of liberal government to come through for the middle class. Unlike the Clintons-iconic baby boomers-Obama claims to have no dog in the culture wars; he doesn’t feel compelled to defend, or mend, or end every piece of legislation passed when he was a toddler or decades before his birth. In “Hope,” he writes, “These efforts seem exhausted, a constant game of defense, bereft of the energy and new ideas needed to address the changing circumstances of globalization or a stubbornly isolated inner city.” Obama found his national voice at the 2004 Democratic Convention, in Boston, when his keynote address auguring the end of red-and-blue-state America made him an immediate Presidential prospect.
After he declared his candidacy, in early 2007, the Obama who dominated his first year of campaigning was the post-partisan one. He won legions of followers through the sheer power of inspiration. At Dartmouth College in early January, on the night before the New Hampshire primary, a group of students expressed to me deep disenchantment with the Bush and the Clinton dynasties-the boomer War of the Roses. “Obama is the anti-Bush who could get us beyond Bush and all the polarization in Washington,” one student said. Another put it this way: “He’s one of us.” The post-partisan Obama brought millions of young voters into his movement, and he began to peel away moderate Republicans who were sick of their party’s being defined by Dick Cheney’s autocratic style of governance and Karl Rove’s cynical political tactics.
The real problem with partisanship, Obama believes, is that it’s no longer pragmatic. After decades of bruising fights in Washington, it has become incompatible with effective government. “I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in,” he writes in “Hope.” “I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. For it’s precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country.” Partisan politics, defined merely as demagoguery or stupidity, is easy to reject-but doing so doesn’t take us very far. It’s like calling on everyone to be decent. At its weakest, post-partisanship amounts to an aversion to fighting, a trait that some people who know Obama see in him. In the early months of the primary, Obama seemed almost physically to shrink from confrontation, and Hillary Clinton got the better of him in debate after debate.
Just before the Iowa caucus, Sidney Blumenthal, a friend and an adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, told me, “It’s not a question of transcending partisanship. It’s a question of fulfilling it. If we can win and govern well while handling multiple crises at the same time and the Congress, then we can move the country out of this Republican era and into a progressive Democratic era, for a long period of time.” Blumenthal found Obama’s approach to be “ahistorical”-a simple hope that the past could be waved away. Should Obama win the nomination, members of the Clinton campaign cautioned, he would have no idea what was in store for him. At a Clinton event in Hampton, New Hampshire, a seventy-one-year-old woman named Ruth Keene told me that “the Republicans would chew Obama up.”
They tried like hell. They called him an élitist, a radical, a socialist, a Marxist, a Muslim, an Arab, an appeaser, a danger to the republic, a threat to small children, a friend of terrorists, an enemy of Israel, a vote thief, a non-citizen, an anti-American, and a celebrity. Obama didn’t defeat the Republicans simply by rising above partisanship, although his dignified manner served as a continual rebuke to his enemies and went a long way toward reassuring skeptical voters who weren’t members of the cult of “Yes We Can.” It turned out that the culture war, in spite of Sarah Palin’s manic gunplay, was largely over. Obama won because he had a vastly superior organization, a steely resilience that became more evident in October than it was in January (for which he owes a debt to Hillary Clinton), and a willingness to fight back on ground on which the majority of Americans-looking to government for solutions-now stand.
According to David Axelrod, among the books that Obama has read recently is “Unequal Democracy,” by the Princeton political scientist Larry M. Bartels. It attributes the steep economic inequality of our time not to blind technological and market forces but to specific Republican policies. Bartels writes, “On average, the real incomes of middle-class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans.” For decades, rising inequality coincided with conservative electoral success, because voters were largely ignorant of the effects of tax-code changes and other economic policies, those in power were unresponsive to the concerns of working-class citizens, and broader income growth occurred in election years. In other words, the causes of inequality are essentially political-an insight that suggests that Obama might use economic policy to begin reversing a decades-long trend.
“Unequal Democracy” is decidedly a title from the left-wing book club, and it suits a candidate whose language became more ideological in the days after the markets crashed, in mid-September. Obama began to refer to the financial meltdown as “the final verdict” on a “failed economic philosophy”-words that one of his advisers called “the key line in the campaign narrative.” Another adviser told me that, in the final months of the race, economic conditions pushed Obama to the left. “Barack is a progressive person but also cautious,” the adviser wrote in an e-mail. “He understands politics and understands the limits it can create on progressive policy. But as the times have moved, he’s moved quickly along with them.” Early on, during the more vaporous and messianic phase of his candidacy, Obama took more cautious stands than Hillary Clinton did, but this fall he began to embrace some of Clinton’s positions that he had once refused to support, such as a moratorium on foreclosures and a government buyout of mortgages.
Obama was able to make a powerful case for a break with conservative economics, in part, because he doesn’t carry the scars of recent history. “He’s not intimidated by the issue frames that have bedevilled Democrats for the last couple of decades,” one of the advisers said. “There’s never been a sense of having to triangulate.” By the end of the campaign, Obama wasn’t just running against broken politics, or even against the Bush Presidency. He had the anti-government philosophy of the entire Age of Reagan in his sights.
So events in the homestretch crystallized Obama’s economic liberalism. But anyone who has read “The Audacity of Hope” already knew that Obama is no moderate when it comes to the purpose of government. On social and legal issues-guns, abortion, the death penalty, same-sex marriage, the courts and the Constitution-Obama’s instinct is usually to soften the left-right clash by reconciling opposites or by escaping them altogether, to find what he called, discussing abortion in his final debate with McCain, “common ground.” The phrase is a perfect expression of what Sunstein says is Obama’s determination to accommodate disagreement to the extent possible. On issues of culture and law, Obama’s liberalism is more procedural than substantive: his most fervent belief is in rules and in standards of serious debate. Given the abuses of executive power and political discourse under George W. Bush, this trait will bring no insignificant cleansing. But Obama’s personal caution and conservatism, his sense of rectitude, as well as his idea of politics as a mature calling, shouldn’t be mistaken for split-the-difference centrism on every issue. On questions of social welfare-jobs, income, health care, energy-which don’t immediately provoke a battle over irreconcilable values, he has given every indication of favoring activist government. When I asked Axelrod if the conservative era had just ended, he said, “From the standpoint of values, I wouldn’t say that. But, from the standpoint of economics, yes-American history runs in epochs like this.” He added, “That’s what the theory of our race was-that this is one of those periods of change we encounter every once in a while in our history.”
A chapter in “The Audacity of Hope” titled “Opportunity” describes why “the social compact F.D.R. helped construct is beginning to crumble,” and begins to sketch a new social compact for a new century. Obama makes a point of incorporating some of the insights of the Reagan era-such as the importance of market incentives and efficiency-but his conclusion, which is unmistakably Rooseveltian, is a call for the renewal of “widespread economic security.” Similarly, in a speech on the economy at New York’s Cooper Union, last March, Obama said, “I do not believe that government should stand in the way of innovation or turn back the clock to an older era of regulation. But I do believe that government has a role to play in advancing our common prosperity, by providing stable macroeconomic and financial conditions for sustained growth, by demanding transparency, and by insuring fair competition in the marketplace. Our history should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism.” Since then, Obama has made it even more clear that he wants to lay the ghost of Reagan to rest.
In September, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, in Boston, held a forum on Presidential leadership. Cass Sunstein was one of the participants; another was Robert Kuttner, the co-founder of The American Prospect and a liberal economics journalist. The two argued over what it would take for Obama to be a great President. In Kuttner’s view, nothing short of a return to New Deal-style government intervention will be enough to prevent the dire economy from dooming Obama’s Presidency. This summer, Kuttner published a short book titled “Obama’s Challenge,” which he described to me as “an open letter” to the candidate. “Obama will need to be a more radical president than he was a presidential candidate,” Kuttner writes. “Obama, in his books and speeches, has been almost obsessed with the idea that people are sick of partisan bickering. Yet he also has claimed the identity of a resolute progressive. Can he be both? History suggests that it is possible both to govern as a radical reformer and to be a unifier, and thereby move the political center to the left.” According to Kuttner, the next President must be willing to spend at least six hundred billion dollars-a Keynesian outpouring-on public works, health care, energy independence, unemployment benefits, mortgage refinancing, aid to state and local governments, and other programs. Otherwise, the country will slide into a depression that will rival the one Roosevelt inherited. (When I ran the six-hundred-billion figure by Paul Krugman, he agreed.)
“Sunstein’s minimalism is exactly what’s not called for,” Kuttner told me, and he later added, “We’re on the verge of Great Depression Two. All bets are off. The people who talk about post-liberal, post-ideological, they have been completely overtaken by events. It’s the same abuses, the same scenario, that led to the crash of ’29. It’s the same dynamics of the financial economy dragging down the real economy-these are enduring lessons. Everybody who was talking about being in a kind of post-liberal world, they’re the ones who don’t have much purchase on what’s going on. The question is whether Obama will come to this.” The answer will depend in part on the advisers he chooses. In Kuttner’s mind, the deficit hawks and deregulators of the Clinton Administration-Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers-have been discredited by the financial crisis, and he thinks that it would be a big mistake for Obama to give them powerful roles in his Administration. (Summers is considered a likely candidate for Treasury Secretary, and his top economic advisers are connected with the Hamilton Project, a center-left affiliate of the Brookings Institution.) But, beyond macroeconomics, Kuttner, who plans to hold a conference in Washington called “Thinking Big,” shortly before Obama’s Inauguration, thinks that the Democrats have a clear political agenda: “the reclamation of an ideology.”
This is not an ambition that Obama has ever publicly embraced. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he specifically rejects such talk. “That’s not Obama,” Robert B. Reich, who was Bill Clinton’s first Labor Secretary and now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, said. “Obama is not about the restoration of government as a progressive force per se.” He added, “Were Obama to approach this in an ideological way, talking about this as ‘We are now going to affirm the importance and centrality of government in the future of the nation,’ I think the public would walk away.”
Reich, who holds Obama in high regard-he supported his candidacy over that of his old friend Hillary Clinton-bears his share of scars from the Clinton years, many of them inflicted by other members of the Administration. He fought and lost a number of first-term battles against Rubin and other centrists, who persuaded Clinton to balance the budget rather than spend more on public investments. Obama will take office with a number of advantages that were unavailable to the last Democratic President. The Party is more united, the Democrats in Congress energized by their recent return to a majority. As stagnant wages and pressing public needs have become the focus of Democratic domestic policy, the old line between deficit hawks and economic liberals has dissolved- last week, the Times published an Op-Ed piece co-written by a leading representative of each group: Rubin and the economist Jared Bernstein, respectively. (They met somewhere around the forty-yard line on Bernstein’s half of the field.) Bill Clinton began his Presidency as the country was coming out of a recession, and Alan Greenspan, the semi-divine chairman of the Federal Reserve, could hold the new President hostage to Wall Street. Now Greenspan, in retirement, has confessed to Congress that his free-market world view was flawed; Wall Street lies prostrate after suffering something like a paralyzing stroke; and, with the country entering a deep recession, both deficit spending and financial regulation are givens. More profoundly, the conservative tide was still high when Clinton entered the White House, and it quickly swamped him. Obama will take power at its lowest ebb. It is for all these reasons that 2009 will be more like 1933 than like 1993.
Nonetheless, in our conversation Reich kept returning to the many ways in which President Obama’s ability to act quickly will be compromised. “We are not in Hundred Days territory,” Reich said. “We may be, if the economy goes into free fall-the public may demand dramatic action. But there are so many constraints on dramatic action.” New Presidents make mistakes-in Clinton’s case, Reich said, they included the push to integrate gays into the military, the botched effort to reform health care, and a failure to establish priorities. Even with a solid majority in Congress, Obama will have to deal with the Blue Dog Democrats, who represent states and districts that are more conservative. Reich recently met with one Blue Dog, in the Southwest, who “felt that it was going to be very difficult politically to make the case” that increasing the deficit during a recession was the right thing to do. On the other hand, unions will likely pressure the Administration to curtail trade agreements, in the interest of preventing the further loss of industrial jobs to other countries.
Finally, there will be a Republican opposition. Given the widespread sense of national emergency, David Axelrod said, “I don’t know that Republicans can afford to take a laissez-faire kind of approach. I think there are going to be a fair number of Republicans who are going to want to coöperate because they’re not going to be on the wrong side of the debate.” Kuttner implied that Obama can govern without them. Reich regarded them with the wariness of a crime victim whose assailant is still at large. “They are weaker,” he said. “They’re not dead by any stretch of the imagination. They’re in disarray and discredited, but that’s partly because they’ve not had a clear target, and, undoubtedly, an Obama Administration and a Democratic Congress will give them a very clear target.” In Washington, the establishment is already beginning to warn that Obama shouldn’t “overreach” by moving too far to the left. But the question isn’t whether he tacks left or center; it’s whether he demonstrates early on that government can begin to improve people’s lives.
The tremendous expectations that will accompany Obama to the White House practically guarantee that some of his supporters will be disappointed by the all-too-normal incapacities of a government founded as a system of checks and balances, and lately choked with lobbyists and corporate money. This disappointment will only feed what Reich called the “deep cynicism in the public about the capacity of government to do anything big and well.”
Obama, in order to break through the inherent constraints of Washington, will need, above all, a mobilized public beyond Washington. Transformative Presidents-those who changed the country’s sense of itself in some fundamental way-have usually had great social movements supporting and pushing them. Lincoln had the abolitionists, Roosevelt the labor unions, Johnson the civil-rights leaders, Reagan the conservative movement. Clinton didn’t have one, and after his election, Reich said, “everyone went home.”
Obama has his own grass-roots organization, on the Internet and in hundreds of field offices. This is new territory, because those earlier movements had independent identities apart from any President, whereas Obama’s movement didn’t exist before his candidacy; its purpose was to get him elected. Even so, it has the breadth, the organization, and the generational energy of other movements, and it can be converted into a political coalition if its leader knows how to harness it.
Obama’s advisers haven’t yet worked out the mechanics of this conversion. The Internet could be used to insure transparency; almost every activity of the federal government could be documented online, as some state governments have begun to do. The White House could use the vast Obama e-mail list to convey information about key issues and bills, and to mobilize pressure on Congress. Just as F.D.R. used radio and Reagan television to speak to the public without going through the press, Obama could do the same with the Web.
It’s hard to imagine, though, how an electronic “social-network platform” would constitute a movement with the clarity and the coherence of the religious right, or the freedom marchers, or the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The agenda of Obama’s candidacy is a list of issues that have different constituencies rather than a single, overarching struggle for freedom or justice. Throughout the campaign, Obama spoke of change coming from the bottom up rather than from the top down, but every time I heard him tell a crowd, “This has never been about me; it’s about you,” he seemed to be saying just the opposite. The Obama movement was born in the meeting between a man and a historical moment; if he had died in the middle of the campaign, that movement would have died with him-proof that, whatever passions it has stirred, it remains something less than a durable social force.
With a movement behind him, Obama would have the latitude to begin to overcome the tremendous resistance to change that prevails in Washington. Without one, he will soon find himself simply cutting deals. And here is where the two aspects of his vision of the Presidency-the post-partisan Obama and the progressive Obama-converge. “Changing politics and making government work are complementary, not opposed,” Reich said. “Otherwise, it’s the same old Washington. It’s a morass.”
Does “changing politics” mean finding a bipartisan consensus before moving on to major reforms? Or inspiring a new generation of public-spirited activists? Or simply using a language and a tone that reject divisiveness and respect the intelligence of the citizenry? A more idealistic and engaged politics would be a profoundly welcome departure from an age of disenchantment and venom. Consensus seems less likely. As Paul Krugman told me, post-partisan rhetoric will be the means. Solving problems through progressive government will be the end.
Last month, Charlie Rose asked Krugman what he would like to hear from Obama’s Inaugural Address. ” ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ ” Krugman said. “I want him to call for something like a new New Deal, saying, ‘Look, we’ve gone off the rails. Not everything’s been bad these past couple of decades, but we lost sight of having a society that works for everybody, we lost sight of a society that provides some basic security, we lost sight of a society that provides some basic insurance against chaos in the financial markets, and we need to recapture some of those values that have made us successful.’ ” Krugman didn’t say what a “new New Deal” would be.
There is a mysterious cycle in human events, but it doesn’t swing back and forth like a pendulum. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., building on his father’s work, observed that American politics alternates between thirty-year periods of conservatism and reform-between the idea that we’re on our own and the idea that we’re all in this together. But the movement of history incorporates everything that went before, always inching ahead even as it oscillates, and anyone who governs as if the experience of entire eras could be reversed is bound to fail. (The Gingrich Congress, driven solely by a desire to dismantle government programs, comes to mind.) “It would be a mistake to surmise that the new era is somehow a return to the New Deal,” Axelrod said. “The one theme that I think travels is the notion that there is a role for government to play. It may be just as a catalyst; it may be using the bully pulpit. But I think the progressive idea that government has a role to play in making sure there are rules of the road, that people get a fair shake, and so on-I think that is very much what people are looking for today.”
If you dip into the literature of the New Deal, what immediately strikes you is its desperate radicalism. Next January, no one will use the kind of apocalyptic language with which Arthur Krock, of the Times, described Roosevelt’s Inauguration: “The atmosphere which surrounded the change of government in the United States was comparable to that which might be found in a beleaguered capital in war time.” In his Inaugural Address, with the Depression in its fourth year, F.D.R. demanded wartime powers. He took office amid protests by military veterans clamoring for their bonuses, and not long after his Inauguration he came up with the idea of sending many of them, along with a couple of hundred thousand other unemployed men, to clear firebreaks in the country’s national parks. After a century and a half of American individualism, his Brain Trust-an advisory group of economists and lawyers-put the government in charge of organizing the economy. Vast programs costing millions of dollars and requiring entirely new agencies took shape overnight while Americans starved to death. Critics, including some Democrats, compared Roosevelt to Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. Demagogues and mobs sprang up around the country, calling for Communism, for Fascism, for old-age pensions. Out of this churn came the mixed economy, and Social Security.
Reagan couldn’t cancel Roosevelt’s legacy; Obama won’t be able to obliterate Reagan’s. The past few decades have generated a great surge of private energy and private pursuits, and for some Americans they have been years of dizzying abundance and creativity. Laptop computers and microbrews are just as characteristic of the Age of Reagan as financial derivatives and outsourcing. Next January, legions of earnest, overworked, slightly underfed young men and women won’t flock to Washington to map out new government bureaucracies; instead, legions of healthy, casually ironic, extremely nice young men and women will flock to Washington to map out the green revolution. When it comes, it will look more like Google than like the Tennessee Valley Authority.
But November 4, 2008, is one of those infrequent dates when one historical age and one generation, with a distinct political and economic and cultural character, gave way to another age, another generation. The new era that is about to begin under President Obama will be more about public good than about private goods. The meal will be smaller, and have less interesting flavors, but it will be shared more fairly. The great American improvisation called democracy still bends along the curve of history. It has not yet finished astounding the world.
As Roosevelt did with the New Deal, Obama has represented different versions of moral leadership to different groups of voters.