Paul Krugman writes:
The Obama Agenda: It’s feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It’s also feeling a lot like 1980. But which parallel is closer? Is Barack Obama going to be a Ronald Reagan of the left, a president who fundamentally changes the country’s direction? Or will he be just another Bill Clinton?... [T]he odds are that this will be a “change” election — which means that it’s very much Mr. Obama’s election to lose. But if he wins, how much change will he actually deliver?
Reagan, for better or worse — I’d say for worse, but that’s another discussion — brought a lot of change.... America at the end of the Reagan years was not the same country it was when he took office. Bill Clinton also ran as a candidate of change... portrayed himself as someone who transcended the traditional liberal-conservative divide, proposing “a government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement.”... The Clinton administration achieved a number of significant successes, from the revitalization of veterans’ health care and federal emergency management to the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and health insurance for children. But the big picture is summed up by the title of a new book by the historian Sean Wilentz: “The Age of Reagan: A history, 1974-2008.” So whom does Mr. Obama resemble more? At this point, he’s definitely looking Clintonesque....
[F]or Democrats, winning this election should be the easy part. Everything is going their way: sky-high gas prices, a weak economy and a deeply unpopular president. The real question is whether they will take advantage of this once-in-a-generation chance to change the country’s direction. And that’s mainly up to Mr. Obama.
Reagan had ideological majorities in both houses of congress throughout his presidency--remember the "boll weevils"? Clinton did not even have ideological majorities in his first two years.
Yet Reagan's conservative achievements were remarkably limited:
- A tilting of the tax code to redistribute income to the rich
And were more than offset, IMHO at least, by his major liberal achievements:
- To end the Cold War by trusting Gorbachev's good faith--in spite of everything the Republican foreign-policy establishment and the wingnut ideologues could throw in his path to try to stop them.
- To cement the government's entitlement-spending role as provider of a mind-bobbling amount of primarily middle-class social insurance: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as we know them.
And then there were Reagan's "achievements" that were simply stupidities:
- Arming Iraq to fight Iran and at the same time arming Iran to fight Iraq
- Letting Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon off their leash to launch their "Peace for Galilee" invasion of Lebanon
- Wasting a fortune on a military buildup just as the Red Army was atrophying
- Slowing American economic growth via the drag put on the economy by his huge budget deficits.
The true history of the U.S. since 1980, IMHO at least, is not Sean Wilentz's "Age of Reagan" but is instead composed of a half dozen or so deeper and broader tides, like:
- The end of the Cold War
- Other winner-take-all factors that have, in combination with education, pushed American income polarization back to Gilded Age levels.
- The failure of American taxpayers to support their state and local governments in expanding funding for public education--and the impact of reduced public education effort in sharpening the distinction between rich and poor.
- The computer revolution in productivity growth.
- The rise of China (and soon, we hope, India) as industrial powers.
- The extraordinary social liberalization of America--if you had told any Republican in 1980 that 2008 would see (a) a Negro with an Arabic-Swahili name beating a veteran figher pilot in the presidential polls and (b) gay marriage as the big cultural issue of the day, said Republican would have blown several gaskets. And if you had said that this would have been the result of an "Age of Reagan" said Republican would have melted down completely.
Ronald Reagan (or perhaps Nancy Reagan, her astrologer, and George Shultz--we are not sure how advanced his Alzheimer's was when) played a constructive role in (1). He played a role in amplifying the destructive effects of (2) and (3). His deficits and the reduced investment seen in the 1980s as a result played a role--how large we are not sure--in delaying (4). And he was essentially irrelevant as far as (5) and (6) are concerned.
I think Obama would have a better chance than Clinton or Reagan of being a positive, transformational president if he takes office supported by ideological majorities in the congress. It would, I think, be hard to do as little with his ideological majority as Reagan did with his. (It would be impossible to do as little with his ideological majority as Bush has done with his.) And Clinton never had the chance--think of Sam Nunn, John Breaux, Buddy Tauzin, Bob Kerrey, and the other congressional barons whom Clinton had to deal with in 1993-94 even before Gingrich.
Whether an Obama presidency would see him having an ideological majority in congress is an open question. I think that both John Ellwood and Robert Reischauer are on record as thinking not: that just as in 1993-94 the congressional balance of power in 2009-2010 is likely to be held by the boll weevils...