Get elected. Do something good. Repeat.

In the cover story of the current issue of Newsweek, Jon Meachem argues that Barack Obama, if he wins the election, will have a difficult time pursuing a progressive agenda. This is a right-of-center nation, according to Meachem, and the experience of Democratic presidents from FDR to LBJ to Bill Clinton suggests that bold moves to the left bring electoral punishment and thence a shift back to the center. The current disappointment with the past eight years of Republican rule and the depth of the economic crisis may make it seem as though anything is possible, Meachem says, but Americans remain fundamentally conservative in temperament (dislike of change) and ideology (wary of government), so an Obama administration would do well to avoid overreach.

I think this is wrong. It’s not that I disagree with the claim that the United States is a right-of-center nation; compared to other rich countries, we clearly are. Nor do I think Meachem is mistaken in suggesting that progressive initiatives by an Obama administration might contribute to electoral reaction. But it does not follow from either or both of these suppositions that the wise course of action is to proceed cautiously.

A president’s chief goal should be to make the country a better place, not to win the next election. Even if it were true that the Democrats’ defeat in 1968 owed to liberal overreach in LBJ’s early years, would the country have been better off had Johnson and his congressional allies not pushed through the Civil Rights Act, Medicare/Medicaid, and Food Stamps? Perhaps they would have been passed a bit later and thereby generated less controversy, but it’s also possible that the moment would have been lost for a long time.

More important, presidents and parties don’t merely respond to public opinion; they can actively shape it. Despite their ideological conservatism, Americans are “programatically liberal”; they strongly favor a range of government programs, from public schools to Social Security and Medicare to the minimum wage and Earned Income Tax Credit. When government creates programs that work, Americans tend to support those programs (similar points made here and here). The United States may be an ideologically right-of-center country, but its center has steadily shifted left. That shift is in large part a consequence of government activism.

Bold action can also pay dividends politically, especially in periods of crisis. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 to do something about the depression, though most who voted for him probably weren’t sure exactly what they wanted him to do. Roosevelt and the Congress moved quickly to put in place a set of programs that enhanced economic security for ordinary Americans — Social Security, unemployment insurance, and a minimum wage, among others. These programs were widely perceived as helpful. And though the American public inevitably moved back toward Republicans in both congressional and presidential elections, the Democrats dominated American politics for a generation.

In the late 1970s the country again faced a perceived economic crisis, this time coupled with a foreign policy one (defeat in Vietnam followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and anti-American revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua). Like FDR, Ronald Reagan was elected because he proposed to change course. He cut taxes and sharply increased military spending. Rightly or wrongly, a significant share of Americans viewed this as helpful. Republicans suffered some setbacks in congressional elections and eventually lost the presidency for a while. But due in part to Reagan’s aggressive response to the crisis, the party improved its standing among the American public, which in turn contributed to its electoral success. The following chart shows the share of Americans identifying as Republicans and Democrats according to the main sources of such data, the National Election Studies and General Social Survey. The key thing to note is that the rise in Republican identification comes after the 1980 election, not before. (Unfortunately, these surveys began well after Roosevelt’s era.)

If Barack Obama is elected president, he’ll have no choice but to address the economic crisis. Beyond that, my guess is he’ll focus on health care, energy, economic security (perhaps pegging the minimum wage to inflation and reforming unemployment insurance), and taxes. History suggests that both he and his party might well benefit if he moves quickly and boldly, rather than cautiously. That’s the lesson of FDR and Reagan. The Clinton (health care) lesson is that whichever issues Obama chooses to prioritize, it’s critical that he get something done.

4 thoughts on “Get elected. Do something good. Repeat.

  1. What should be the big agenda of American politics for the near future is a major restructuring of the labor market – nothing to do with left or right; just mechanical.

    Right now we have indispensable last-lot seller (business) vs. desperate fire-sale sellers (labor) – what existed at the beginning of industrialization. What American labor desperately needs to do is set up is indispensable last-lot vs. indispensable last lot to assure fair bargaining – then, let the market take care of itself.

    Major means wage labor, especially low wage, gets a lot more money: a doubling of the minimum wage and sector-wide labor agreements (the latter being the world-wide accepted answer to the race to the bottom – when 2050 China has the same living standard we do today, they will undoubtedly use sector-wide labor agreements).

    Nobody in the intellectual elite (whose intellectual blood I absorb as much as a leech can) seems to appreciate the giant scale of the wage raises needed, especially on the bottom, to close the standard of living gap with the rest of the modern OECD – nor how little that giant scale would cost, especially at the bottom (a strange triage).

    Doubling the minimum wage* would add only 3% inflation (to the cost of GDP output) while shifting about $400 billion of income to bottom 40 percentile earners. [*doubling to 1/2 of the average wage – average calculated as all non-investment private income divided by 140 million workers X 2000 hours – not the gov average which only grew 20% while per capita income grew 100% since 1968 — Ike’s and LBJ’s were 2/3, which was really pushing back when the average wage was only 40-50% of today’s, not much headroom.]

    Anything less than a 1/2 the average wage minimum, anything less than sector-wide labor agreements and American labor only gets marginal relief from a real Great Wage Depression. Do something “great” (not just “good”) to relieve something great. :-)

  2. More on the need for great not good moves to save American labor (sorry of I carry on and on so, but I am left for dead American labor):

    Imagine if the typical top 20 percentile family earned $272,000/yr –instead of the average income of top 20 percentile families being $272,000/yr.

    (The Census says $186,000/yr but its family numbers add up to only 67% growth over 40 years while per capita income grew 100%. If family income grew 90% — the difference hidden by top coding income above one million — that would add an extra $86,000 to the top quintile average.)

    Wouldn’t just about everybody but Newt Grinchrich agree that the labor of our imaginary top 20 percentile families was not worth that much more than the labor of bottom 20 percentile families ($16,000/yr, not counting food stamps and other helps). Top 20 percentiler’s are not rocket scientists by and large (even if they were!).

    That all the excess income (income shift) has been traced to top 3 percentile pockets, overwhelmingly to the top 1 percentile, most especially to the top .1 percentile does not make the situation any less bizarre. CEOs, news anchors and ball players making 25 times what their predecessors did is possibly more extremely out of line with economic common sense…

    …creating the necessity to do what we should have done all along – what we would have to do even if a “fairy godmother” wave a magic wand and reset income distribution between the oceans and below the Canadian border to 1973 specs to prevent the income slippage from happening all over again: set up a system of sector-wide labor agreements and institute the highest practicable minimum wage…

    …not the (wont even save super market workers from the race to the bottom induced two-tier contracts) card check left-over and not the slow stepped minimum wage increases that will end up a dollar below 1968 by 2011.

  3. I suspect the best way for Obama to consolidate a winning Democratic coalition is for him to boldly do whatever is reasonable and necessary to solve current problems and provide for a decent future. If those solutions and provisions happen to be progressive, so much the better. But I believe Americans are a pragmatic people: In the end, they will want to see something that works far more than they will be concerned with any ideological purity.

  4. Pingback: A New Era of Democratic Dominance? « Consider the Evidence

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