Obama makes his case amidst Reagan’s shadow

By Chrystia Freeland
September 6, 2012

If there had been an empty chair at the Democratic convention this week, its ghostly occupant would have been Ronald Reagan.

Barack Obama admiringly referred to Reagan’s transformational presidency during the 2008 election campaign. That enraged the Clintonites, but then-Senator Obama’s take on the historical shifts in American politics was absolutely right. If you doubt that, just think back one week to the Republican convention, which was above all a coming-out party for Reagan’s 21st-century heirs.

Reagan’s legacy is so powerful because he identified the state as the central issue in American politics. That is still true today. Both in Tampa, Florida, where the Republican promise was to shrink the state, and in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democrats’ promise is to transform the state into a more effective servant of the middle class, the big question is what government should do, and how big it should be.

In 2008, Mr. Obama identified the force of Reagan’s leadership because he aspired to have the same impact. But the problem for him — and for American liberals in this century more broadly — is that the task they have set for themselves is both harder to do and, crucially, harder to explain.

That argument is made eloquently in a newly published essay on the Obama presidency by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor and one of the country’s foremost political theorists. If you read only one book about Mr. Obama this electoral season, read “Obama and America’s Political Future,” the slim volume that includes Dr. Skocpol’s essay and three smart responses. Together, they rise above the tick-tocks and polemics that characterize too much of the United States’ political writing.

Dr. Skocpol’s starting point is the comparisons between Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Mr. Obama’s ambitious plans — often described as a New New Deal — that were often made at the beginning of his administration. But that parallel, which was drawn by insiders as readily as by outsiders, misses one crucial historical difference: F.D.R. built the state from scratch, while Mr. Obama is trying to overhaul a massive state machine that has existed for decades.

“The things that happened in the 1930s were unprecedented in peacetime,” Dr. Skocpol told me. “That was hard, but citizens could get a sense that something new was happening. What is different for Obama is that there is a very elaborated federal apparatus that already exists.”

It is the difference between a start-up and turning around a big, troubled company, or, to use a more domestic metaphor, between building a brand-new house and renovating an old one.

“We know from economic and technology history — it is easier to fill a space for the first time,” Dr. Skocpol said. “This is the same principle.”

Dr. Skocpol, who describes the Obama effort as “redirecting” the state, believes that task is difficult for many reasons. One is that change usually antagonizes vested interests; another is that, as the Obama administration has certainly shown, it often increases complexity.

When it comes to Election Day, renovation has a further, powerful disadvantage, compared with starting from scratch. When you build on a greenfield site, it is easy to show what you are doing and to explain how it is new. When you are working on a brownfield site, it is a lot harder to demonstrate what you’ve actually accomplished.

In the United States, the job of redirecting the state is further complicated by a phenomenon the author of another essay in this volume describes as the “submerged state.” Suzanne Mettler, a political science professor at Cornell University in New York State, coined the term to describe “a whole number of public policies in the United States that are hard for people to perceive as such because of their design.”

The submerged state lurks most massively in tax policy, which provides huge benefits, but ones that are largely invisible to their recipients. The result is the familiar American paradox of beneficiaries of government largess who passionately call for a shrinking of the state.

“A lot of people derive a lot of benefits from public policy, but they don’t recognize that the government is assisting them, so they are less likely to support government,” Dr. Mettler told me. She cited a survey she did in which only 43 percent of respondents admitted to ever getting help from the government. When asked about specific programs, though, 96 percent turned out to have benefited from state largess.

When it comes to the campaign trail, the easiest platform is a start-up — Americans love the shiny new thing. Next best is demolishing something that’s old and rotten — the appeal of Representative Paul D. Ryan’s radical rhetoric is no accident.

Hardest of all is to promote a painstaking, time-consuming renovation — which is exactly what U.S. government needs and what Mr. Obama, at his best, has promised to accomplish. To succeed, he needs to understand how different his new deal is from F.D.R.’s and why his transformation is a harder sell than Reagan’s was. He needs the courage to remove the cloak of invisibility from America’s submerged state. And when it is revealed to Americans in all of its complex and inefficient glory, he needs to come up with a clear plan not to make it bigger, but to make it better.

PHOTO: Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista narrate a tribute to former President Ronald Reagan during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 30, 2012.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif 

8 comments

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To shine a bright light on the “submerged state” is not going to help Obama “make the case” for “four more years”. I see just the same old political shell game with new shells. Rhetoric over substance.

Politicians of BOTH parties don’t “get” that identifying and adding up the “huge benefits” our government is shoveling out day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that they “recognize” many of those “huge benefits” are not appropriate burdens to put on working Americans. The “submerged state” is, in fact, but the American “ship of state” foundering in a sea of red ink! It’s trip to the bottom will be a one way trip if not halted before it’s too late.

What’s important is to “recognize” that all the production of American workers is not enough to generate the tax revenue required to sustain today’s “huge benefits”. And let us not ignore the fact that these “huge benefits” are paid out with dollars this country doesn’t have, just more and more “unsecured” paper and ink. Each such dollar increasingly dilutes the value of every existing dollar in circulation.

We know this because politicians of both major parties fund these “huge benefits” with increases in America’s debt limit that they consider “routine”. Instead of the “new deal” or the “new new deal, the most appropriate description may be the “stacked deal”. There will be no “huge benefits” for America’s workers of the future. They will receive instead the “tab” for today’s largesse.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I believe that “the comparisons between Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Mr. Obama’s ambitious plans” are missing such a “little thing” as China. At least, in this commentary. So, I had to click on ‘China’ tab on the right and read “The economy’s ‘China Syndrome’” by Chrystia Freeland, which complemented and completed this article for me.

Speaking of Reagan. In my (not very informed) opinion, by destroying unions, Reagan was at the cradle of mass jobs outsourcing from this country. Whatever one thinks about unions, organized labor is a force with main purpose of protecting jobs and job-related rights of its members. So could it be that strong German unions are among primary reasons why Germany’s worker doesn’t feel as much pain from jobs outsourcing as an American one?

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

COEXISTENCE

{… citizens could get a sense that something new was happening (in the 1930s). What is different for Obama is that there is a very elaborated federal apparatus that already exists.”}

Any Social Democracy, that merits that appellation today, is one that taxes income heavily and spends amply on leveling the playing field. The assortment of Public Services thus is pervasive. But two come to mind that are central to Social Justice.

The first is a National Health-Care System, which provides universal medical services to the nation at an affordable cost. The second is a near-free education from primary to secondary to tertiary education.

Health Care touches every human being on earth. It is a primary concern of all of us and often a matter of life and death. The second is necessary to assure that all citizens have a chance to find work in decent jobs at decent wages.

Perhaps in third place is affordable housing, which allows a family to shelter itself.

Why these three above? Because they relate and coincide with human needs. Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs first promulgate by the psychologist in the latter part of WW2 – when the Great Depression had finally been put to an end by the massive spending of the war. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hi erarchy_of_needs

The above three components of Social Justice apply to the bottom levels of the Needs hierarchy, meaning they are the most important. Housing and Health Care are elementary to any nation – which is why most developed countries assume that they are primary Public Services.

The third, Education, is necessary to assure a beings economic fulfillment, that is, the ability to leave the lower areas, assured that they are well-housed and healthy – thus embarked upon achieving the higher levels of personal self-realization.

We’ve not, I submit, in the US been able to assure our population of either an effective National Health System (aka the Public Option) despite two attempts, one by Hilary Clinton and the other by Obama. Or guaranty a decent educational transition from primary to secondary to tertiary education for the majority of our population.

Why? Because despite the Federal assistance to achieve these objectives, we still think (erroneously) that private institutions can best achieve those objectives. So we spend colossal amounts of our income in assuring their attainment in an attempt to guaranty that our children are assured a better standard of living than ourselves.

Meaning this: We have yet to strike a proper balance between the state (Federal, state, city) and and our market economy. Both must coexist, we have learned from the history of the 20th century and the demise of Communism. The state cannot provide solely all the means necessary to achieve an acceptable standard of living for its citizens.

But neither can the market economy. Which should framework the objectives of our economy over the next two decades. But we are stuck in the mud debating the primacy of either for the past eight years and perhaps longer.

It’s time we decide a balance, if only to assure that our children will not bear the hard consequences of our indecision. We must decide, not just at the level of the presidency of our nation, but also in Congress.

Or we, as a nation, are condemned to the inefficacy of gridlock as a nation.

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive

FDR’s New Deal took 10 years and a world war’s stimulus to manufacturing before it found any traction; Reagan’s tax cuts and de-regulation took two years to start a durable expansion.

Posted by abb68 | Report as abusive

u-bam-a is for more government and more government. Most politicians are.

Government has proven itself to be highly inefficient, highly incompetent and highly uneffective.

Government wastes more resources than business and individuals combined.

The facts no one wants to read.

Learn to think for yourself.

Banned from huffpost.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

Obama’s admiration was probably due to his understanding that Reagan was only a figure head, an actor who by the angle of his chin and the look in his eye and the imagery and music in the background inspired the average american as the television had trained them to be inspired. Obama is good at that too. Mitt tries to actually sound like Reagan, but that’s not enough and it’s apparent he is no actor, so he’ll never be presidential.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I don’t believe there is a shred of truth in the statement that the Obama administration is trying to make government the servant of the middle class. It’s all too clear that Obama and his predecessor, George bush, have striven for exactly the opposite. At least Bush is now only an unpleasant memory. I do hope that Obama will join him and achieve that status in November.

Posted by nikacat | Report as abusive

Ronald Reagan’s arrival at the Oval Office resulted in the opening of Pandora’s Box of Ills when he drastically reduced Marginal and Capital Gains Income Taxes.

The result on income shares has since become obvious (from the Paris School of Economics, World Top Income Database which demonstrates clearly that the share of Total Income of the Top 10% of American households increased from 31.5% to 46.3% over the past five decades:
1960 – 33.8%
1970 – 31.5%
1980 – 32.9%
1990 – 38.8%
2000 – 43.1%
2010 – 46.3%

That’s nearly half the total income generated by the American economy!

Income Disparity is The Major Challenge of the United States at present. And nothing from the Republican side indicates that it has a response to that challenge.

Because the only obvious answer is Tax ‘n Spend, meaning putting the top rates back up to where they were before 1960 (at 75%).

Which would give the Republican Party a collective seizure.

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive