"Like it or not, Obama is not the new FDR, but the new Gorbachev: a man forced to preside over the demise of a political system he desperately wants to save.”The first time you hear them, these words from Richard Miniter sound like typical Tea Party hyperbole. But before you dismiss them out of hand, consider the arc of the Obama presidency so far, as seen through liberal eyes. I confess that this is substantially the way I still see it.
It’s only been a couple of years since we were chortling about the intellectual demise of movement conservatism and the political crack-up of the Republican Party. Set against John McCain's militant cluelessness, Obama's fluency had us thinking we could pick up where an earlier generation of liberals had left off in 1965, carrying on the work of the New Deal. The Great Recession only made it easier for us to think of him as a latter-day FDR, a pragmatic liberal president who wasn’t about to let an economic crisis go to waste. Obama's FDR-phase lasted roughly from inauguration day until he spearheaded the passage of health care reform and found, to his and our immense surprise, that he and the Democratic Party would pay a steep political price for it. From then on, liberals needed a different template for understanding their president.
You can’t blame those of us who find a little consolation in the fact that, even with an atrocious economy and three wars to prosecute, Obama seems to be holding his own in his daily skirmishes with a Republican Party that seems constitutionally incapable of not shooting itself in the foot. Lots of people are still marveling at how effectively he called the House Republicans' bluff over the debt ceiling, by offering more spending cuts than they were bargaining for in exchange for some modest tax increases that they couldn't abide. Granted, we don't associate this kind of political jujitsu with FDR, but it does evoke pleasant memories of the way Bill Clinton out-maneuvered Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. So maybe the FDR comparison was a little grandiose, but Obama’s well on his way to being a latter-day Clinton.
Yet that comparison doesn’t quite ring true either. Recall that the campaign slogan that helped Clinton win reelection in 1996, something about “building a bridge to the 21st century.” The general idea was that, with him at the helm, the Democratic Party was the place to look for people who could build a sustainable post-industrial political economy that answered to traditional liberal ideals of social justice. Compared to Bob Dole Republicans, Bill Clinton's Democratic Party looked like a fount of innovation. That’s when Democrats got into the regrettable habit of affixing the adjective “smart” to everything they proposed to do, even when it turns out to have been not-so-smart after all, like “smart diplomacy.”
Does anybody still think the party of Obama, Reid and Pelosi is in the business of building bridges to a future that looks materially different from the present? Consider these words from Obama's last press conference about why it makes sense for liberals to consent to massive spending cuts, including cuts in entitlements:
"If you care about making investments in our kids and making investments in our infrastructure and making investments in basic research, then you should want our fiscal house in order, so that every time we propose a new initiative somebody doesn’t just throw up their hands and say, 'Ah, more big spending, more government.'"Got that? Obama's telling liberals that, although we're facing some headwinds that oblige us to make a few tactical concessions to fiscal and political circumstances, we can still relax. There's nothing structurally wrong with the welfare state as we've known it all these years. After we've eaten a few peas, we can go back to doing business substantially the way we always have.
Even a liberal could be forgiven if the thought crosses his mind that this sounds more like Gorbachev than Clinton.