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.