My close friend Todd and I have a running political debate about the legacy-in-the-making of Pres. Obama. This debate dates back to a wee hours of the morning dinner in Vegas after a full day of watching the Mosley – Mayweather fight and playing countless hours of poker, but please overlook its dubious origins, as I do.

Todd is fond of ticking off the legislative accomplishments of the past two years. Stimulus, healthcare reform, financial regulation reform, and here of late, the tax cut extensions, START treaty and repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Personally, I have strong disagreements with some of these accomplishments. I think the healthcare reform that finally passed is a bizarre amalgamation of ideas that somehow collectively fails to address either imperative facing us: the imperative of universal coverage and the imperative of cost containment. Todd would say that presidents have tried and failed (or not even tried) for decades to address this issue, and Obama should be lauded for getting this done. True, but ultimately there is something not at all satisfying about the result. I also rather dislike the recent tax cut extension legislation, for its devastating impact on current deficits.

But I do give Todd his due. Obama’s legislative accomplishments have been astonishing. Where Todd and I begin to part company is the long view. It is Obama’s failure to capture the zeitgeist of America these days, or, perhaps better said, having briefly captured it, his failure to keep hold of it and shape it. There was a window, roughly from the time that he vanquished Hillary Clinton in the primaries until the Republicans seized control of the healthcare debate narrative, during which Obama was perfectly aligned with America’s mood. His particular brand of political freshness and intellectual candor felt just right.

Since the end of that period, America’s mood has shifted rapidly while Obama’s pitch has not. This puts Obama’s legacy in peril. Already, a Republican-majority House of Representatives prepares to thunder into town with the very specific intent of clipping the wings of Obama’s healthcare program, his energy program, his budget vision, his financial reforms. Count me among those who believe Obama will win reelection, probably even handily. This is based on two core ideas: that the economy will continue to improve over the next two years, and that Obama remains by far the most popular policial brand in the country.

Even assuming his relection, though, I think the question is completely valid: What will remain of Obama’s legislative legacy after six more years? After 20? This is what I have been trying to express to Todd. Is it good enough if a president leads Washington through an amazing legislative agenda, only to find that the country hasn’t deeply embraced the political values needed to sustain that work? For example, Pres. Bush led us through a dizzying recalibration of the national security/personal liberty tradeoff in the wake of 9-11, telling us — correctly, in my opinion — that this required a multigenerational commitment to defeating the forces of radical Islam. Yet less than a decade later, our personal liberty values are once again overtaking our national security concerns, as support is dissipating for everything from military action in Afghanistan to aggressive TSA screening procedures. It seems to me that Bush was more successul at getting the policy implemented than he was at forging an enduring national consensus around those policies.

That sounds like Obama. I contrast both Bush and Obama with two presidents who I think transcended these political boundaries. The first was Franklin Roosevelt. Of course he sheparded a staggering remaking of the legislative map in the 1930s, but he went far beyond that. He ushered in five decades during which his progressive vision dominated the political landscape. Through presidencies Democrat and Republican, the nation consistently reflected that progressive mentality, with a willingness to employ the powers of government to shape our economic and cultural lives. The result was the creation of the broadest, strongest middle class in history of the planet.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan came along, and his message of the danger of overextended government has remained the single most dominant theme in American politics for three decades now. Even with mostly Democratic control of Congress during those years, and the presidency of Bill Clinton, Americans have remained solidly committed to this defining principle. Voters proved this in 2006 and 2008, brusquely shoving aside even Republicans, usually reliable partners of the limited government ethic, for their failure to adhere to the creed.

This brings us to the Obama question. Is he merely the next in a succession of elected leaders consigned to operate within the Reagan framework, or is he the first in line to set the nation on a new political course for the decades? Obama’s curse may be that his unmatched rhetorical skills during the campaign gave us a tantalizing whiff of being the next FDR or Reagan. He felt transcendent. But so far, despite his towering legislative achievements, he has not transcended. That’s not a horrible indictment. Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton would be listed among such competent presidents who rode their respective existing waves to considerable policy advancement.

Five years from now, or ten, or twenty, the nation will face challenges that demand courageous, thoughtful, far-sighted action by our government. Today’s political reality is that, shaped by the Reagan legacy, we are not disposed to trusting our government to do so. If Obama is able to transform the landscape, give back to us a willingness to invest our government with confidence and optimism, then he will have transcended the political conventions of his time and ushered in a new era. Otherwise, we will face these challenges with the underpowered armature of a Reagan-era viewpoint.

I hope he succeeds. I haven’t seen it yet. Lots of important legislation, Todd, but not that.

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Do you consider yourself a limited government type of voter? Are you looking for a path to find the political solution to runaway government spending? I am here to provide a word of caution. Consider, please, these facts:

  • Ronald Reagan: Federal spending in 1981 (the oldest year I have comparable data for) = $697.8 billion. Federal spending in 1988 = $1,066.9 billion. Average annual increase: 6.3%.
  • George HW Bush: Federal spending in 1988 = $1,066.9 billion. Federal spending in 1992 = $1,427.8 billion. Average annual increase: 7.6%.
  • Bill Clinton (pre-Gingrich with Democrats in control of the House): Federal spending in 1992 = $1,427.8 billion. Federal spending in 1994 = $1,463.0 billion. Average annual increase: 1.2%.
  • Bill Clinton (with Gingrich & Republicans in control of the House): Federal spending in 1994 = $1,463.0 billion. Federal spending in 2000 = $1,788.6 billion. Average annual increase: 3.4%.
  • George W Bush (with Republican control of Congress): Federal spending in 2000 = $1,788.6 billion. Federal spending in 2006 = $2,659.2 billion. Average annual increase: 6.8%.
  • George W Bush (with Democratic control of Congress): Federal spending in 2006 = $2,659.2 billion. Federal spending in 2008 = $3,145.3 billion. Average annual increase: 8.8%.
  • Barack Obama First Year: Federal spending in 2008 = $3,145.3 billion. Federal spending in 2009 = $3,516.1 billion. Average annual increase: 11.8%.
  • Barack Obama Second Year (annualized): Federal spending in 2009 = $3,516.1 billion. Federal spending in 2010 = $3,445.6 billion (annualized using data through September). Average annual decrease: 2.0%.

All information sourced from http://www.fms.treas.gov/mts/mts.xls.

*Derived from my own comment on another post of mine*

I have never completely understood something about a key conservative economic belief. Is the idea supposed to be that prosperity comes from the act of cutting taxes? Or that prosperity comes from taxes simply being low when you’re done cutting them. There’s a huge difference. Surely Reagan cutting taxes, when the top marginal rate had previously been 70% or so, is not the same thing as cutting taxes today, when the top marginal rate is half that. Yes, Reagan cut tax rates, but even when he was through, both the top marginal tax rates and the overall level of income taxation were much higher than anything on the table in 2010 — with or without the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Conservatives point to those tax cuts as ushering in an era of prosperity.

Somebody needs to explain to me why Reagan’s tax policies produced economic prosperity, but Obama’s plan to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire — after which, marginal and overall tax rates still will be much lower than Reagan ever saw — would produce economic failure. That is a paradox not easily resolved.

My blogfriend Moe posted this recently. What a great historical perspective her post provides. Can it be any more clear that the election of Reagan in 1980 marked a hugely important tipping point in our fiscal history? Pre-Reagan: government funded with taxes. Reagan and beyond: government funded with debt.

Which president is this?:

This president faced a severe recession early in his administration, which he battled with a combination of tax cuts and spending increases. The stock market responded to the economic improvement with a long, sustained rally. To be sure, federal debt skyrocketed as a result, but that was left for later generations to deal with.

Barack Obama?  Ronald Reagan? The answer is, of course, both.

That’s not to say there aren’t big differences, certainly. Federal debt nearly tripled under Reagan, where it is increasing at “only” about 10% per year under Obama, although from a much higher starting point. The economic crisis Obama has had to battle was far more severe than the Reagan recession. And there’s something we don’t know yet. Reagan’s years ended with a thud: the financial markets in free fall (remember the crash of 1987?) and the economy headed into another recession, which landed during GHW Bush’s term. We don’t yet know if that fate will befall Obama.

My point is, if you find yourself lauding President Reagan and critical of President Bush — or listening to pundits who adopt that posture — you should ask yourself why. Isolate what Reagan did right and what Obama is doing wrong, and then analyze how they are different. It’s harder to do than you may think.

There is no reason to be surprised by the dustup between Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele. Rush is and always has been a voice of the conservative sphere. Republicans are not and never have been a conservative organization.

What has happened is that, as the Republican Party has been blasted into the political wilderness, the few survivors are limping back to the conservative fold, like a 35-year-old man, divorced and jobless, limps backs to his parents’ house.

That this causes tension should be no surprise, because the Republican Party has never been a voice for the American conservative movement. Not under GW Bush, not under GHW Bush, not even under the venerated President Reagan.

If one examines fiscal conservatism, those ideals call for fiscal discipline and limiting the scope of federal government. No Republican president or Congressional leadership has ever embodied that. Every time we have put Republicans in charge, they have voted for increased spending and growth in the federal government. Even sanctified Reagan presided over 7.1% average federal spending growth (not counting defense spending, which rose even faster), and added 2.8% to federal employment during his terms in office.

Fiscally, Republicans have succeeded in isolating one lonely plank — tax cuts — and have acted as if that is the sole definition of conservatism. In practical terms, this means that Republican leadership has produced rapid spending growth coupled with lower tax revenue, resulting inescapably in a vast explosion of federal debt. Of the $11 trillion in federal debt, more than 80% occurred under Reagan and the Bushes. There is nothing fiscally disciplined about the Republican Party.

As for “social conservatism,” the Republican Party fares hardly any better. The cornerstone of social conservatism is a hands-off approach from government in the lives of private citizens. But that ideology is hideously perverted by Republicans. They seek for the federal government to have the loudest voice in terms of abortion rights, gay marriage, drug laws, stem cell research, “intelligent design,” and any number of social issues. Ask Terri Schiavo’s husband about the Republican Party’s commitment to social conservative principles.

No wonder the leader of the conservative movement and the leader of the Republican Party cannot get along.

(1) At the time this president left office, more than 70% of the nation’s entire federal debt had piled up during his time in office.

(2) During his presidency, federal spending rose by an annual rate of 7.1%, not counting defense spending.

(3) The total number of federal employees rose by 2.8% while he was president.

A: Ronald Reagan