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What will the legacy of the 2008 election be?

I was just reading a section of Agendas and Instability in American Politics that makes the argument that governance of the US is stable for long periods until occasional, sudden bursts of change. What we see, retrospectively, as landmark elections – 1964, 1980, 1994 – are moments in history in which a sudden, sharp need for action crystallized and was given substance through the electorate. For the fervid Democrats that swept the DNC to power in 2006/2008 and brought Obama to the presidency, there has been a great deal of hope that 2008 would be one of these moments. Certainly, Obama seized the reins of power firmly from Day 1 in the White House. Within weeks, a myriad of policy fronts had been opened: closing Guantanamo, reforming health care, re-evaluating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, re-regulating the financial sector, rescuing the economy….all of these pursuits and more (driving the 2010 Census forward) left my head spinning – let alone the eggheads in the administration. It wasn’t just me that felt…overwhelmed. Within 2 months of taking office, one of the media narratives about the Obama administration was that it was “doing too much.” In fact, polls had already been written, fielded, analyzed, and reported to show that a majority of Americans felt this way back in March. Now, 8 months into his term, Obama is struggling to re-assert himself and, as Adam Nagourney wrote in the wake of Wednesday’s address on health care,

…display his authority to a Congress that had begun to question his fortitude, to show that he was as strong a political leader as he was a political candidate and to show that he was not — to use the shorthand of the day — another Jimmy Carter: professorial, aloof, a micromanager who perhaps was not ready to be the nation’s chief executive.

What seems to have happened is that, in the rush to right all the wrongs of the Bush administration or make up for the lack of a strong Democratic administration since 1964, Obama launched into every imaginable issue. Many of these issues were complicated and may require months, years, or even longer to work out (see: Afghanistan). Now, Obama has all of these balls in the air and few tangible successes. So far, it seems like the best the administration can muster is, “We’re losing jobs less fast than before.” Not much to hang your hat on… This wouldn’t be bad if momentum and appearance didn’t matter. In reality, endless reporting of minor public opinion shifts dominates media coverage. Given the tight split of the Senate & the controlling voice of the conservative Blue Dog Democratic caucus, the perception of strength or weakness is important. And now I wonder if Obama erred by not strategically targeting and prioritizing issues in order to get some ‘wins’ along the way. By trying to fix everything at once, is it possible that the Obama administration will end up squandering its initial capital & get nothing done? I can’t answer this question. But, I can say that I am concerned. Could health care reform been better achieved through a series of non-threatening piecemeal bills? Was it really necessary to resuscitate the great failure of the Clinton administration? Did we need to exorcise that demon first? Is it just getting in the way of other tasks now? This brings me to a blog post from Economix/NY Times on the financial sector, one year after the meltdown. The short post argues that the ‘beast still lives’ or, in other words, that Wall (and their CT compadres) have escaped meaningful reform. It ends by saying,

We have lived through a tremendous crisis — and learned how close we came to a second Great Depression — yet nothing is now happening to prevent a repeat of something similar in the near future.

I’m afraid this is true. And worse than seeing major health care reform tank, I’m afraid that by waiting this long and losing momentum, I’m afraid no real financial reform is going to come. We’re still on the same have/have-not, boom/bust course that we’ve been on for 30 years. I think the 2008 election did signify a moment of disjuncture in American politics. I think there was a mandate for real change to happen. But I think Obama and the Democrats may have overestimated what that mandate covered. It may not have covered health care or a radical revision of military policy. Instead, it may have been localized & targeted at the nation’s economic system. Certainly, during the election, Obama responded well to the financial crisis (in comparison with McCain anyways) and voters noticed. But now, instead of seizing the moment & effecting real change, I’m afraid the opportunity for real progressive change may have been squandered in the midst of over-reaching into all sorts domains. Wall Street has recovered its bearings, Obama is weakened, and the moment may have elapsed. During the Bush administration, I craved competent government. Officials that believed that government could do good work. Appointees that were actually appointed, showed up, and did their job. Etc. I still believe that Obama can produce this – we’ll have a 2010 Census after all. But, I wonder about the Big Change. I wonder if 2008 will be looked back on as a landmark shift in the direction of the nation. Some mistakes have been made by the Obama administration to this point. But, the ship hasn’t sailed yet. We’ll see…

There are 3 Comments to "What will the legacy of the 2008 election be?"

  • serazio says:

    Interesting stuff, amigo. Matt Bai had a clever take on Obama’s multi-platform agenda a few months back in the NYT Mag: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/magazine/19fob-wwln-t.html?_r=1&ref=magazine Is our guy spreading himself to thin? For a long time in politics, it seemed that you had to do issues like giant set pieces in a Broadway show: to focus laser-like on one topic and harness all your political capital to get that one thing solved, then move it all off-stage for the next thing (“It’s the (fill-in-the-blank), stupid”). At least for me this felt especially true in the Bush years (never mind that he didn’t actually solve/accomplish those line items): No Child Left Behind, tax cuts for the wealthy, 9/11-Afghanistan, Iraq, Social Security and so on. Maybe Bush’s simplified (I’ll forgo the usual pejorative “stupid” here) style lent itself to this paradigm of one-by-one even more. There’s a few ironies here. Yes, Obama is spreading our attention (as the American public and the media commentariat) around across a number of fronts. But in truth, there’s not actually a whole lot that’s actually been done yet – beyond the stimulus package, what else has been signature accomplishments/moments to this point, really? Bailing out/taking over the car industry? OK, yes. (And that feels, on balance, like kind of a bummer.) The Cairo speech. Yes, big ups to him. But besides those, we’re still on the precipice of a real agenda being enacted. Which makes the hyperventilating on the right all the more ironic/amusing. Things are in motion toward progressive reforms: on health care, maybe Afghan military policy (this’ll be a toughie), Gitmo, etc., but there’s nothing really all that much on the books yet. So for all the asinine right-wing howling about us living under socialism, it’s like, “No – no really and definitely not yet.” My biggest thing is that Obama should put jobs, jobs, jobs at the top of his list: for political and policy reasons. That should occupy all of his attention and energy and political capital when he wakes up everyday (and, yes, I know that it’s not easily or quickly solved). It should be his 9/11 – the issue that guides all other priorities. If he walks into Congressional mid-terms next year with unemployment still over 9%, I fear for the rest of his presidency.

  • lee says:

    i really appreciate the comment; it’s nice to know that somebody read this thoroughly enough to have a rich response.

    in brief, i think, in a world where the economy is functioning, a multi-pronged agenda can work. but, as you say: the jobs have to happen. so, in that sense, i think it has to be the economy, stupid (at least first)…

  • Russ says:


    Read this from Slate’s Daniel Gross yesterday. He argues the impact of the stimulus is only now beginning to take effect, and that was by design… maybe bad politics (timingwise), but Gross argues pretty good policy.


    My fear is that now the banks, which were “too big to fail,” are even BIGGER. If a credit crisis happens again, we may well see ourselves in another Great Depression.

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