Opinion

Reihan Salam

Obama’s legacy could be moral rather than political

Reihan Salam
May 24, 2013 16:03 UTC

Barack Obama had high hopes for his second term. In his lofty second inaugural address, he celebrated the virtues of activist government and pledged to redouble his efforts to fight climate change, among other causes dear to American liberals. Yet there is a growing perception that the president’s agenda has stalled. Congressional leaders continue to work toward comprehensive immigration reform legislation, but the Obama administration has mostly taken a hands-off approach. The president devoted several weeks to making the case for more stringent gun regulation, to no avail. Obama’s speech this week recasting the war on terror and drone policy may have been ambitious, but the goals remain thorny and controversial and therefore unlikely to define his presidency. And though he has continued to make the case for substantial tax increases on upper-income Americans, the House GOP remains staunchly opposed. Indeed, conservative anger over Benghazi and IRS targeting of conservative groups has led many Republicans to believe that the president is on the ropes and that they ought to press every advantage.

This raises the question of what kind of legacy President Obama will have. Even if Obama accomplishes nothing between now and the end of his second term, he will have been one of the most consequential presidents in modern American history, for better or for worse. During the 111th Congress, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate passed an unprecedented fiscal stimulus law; the Affordable Care Act; a sweeping student loan overhaul; and the biggest new round of financial regulations since the Great Depression. The president’s re-election victory made it far more likely that these legislative initiatives will endure, even in the face of determined Republican opposition.

But there is something unsatisfying about playing defense, and one imagines that the president, an ambitious and competitive man, longs to do more. One possibility, hinted at in a recent speech, is that Obama might take advantage of his prestige and moral authority to make the case for stronger American families. This need not entail any new legislation, though the president’s conservative critics might welcome that. Rather, it will require a series of firm and consistent moral arguments about what parents, and particularly fathers, owe to their children.

As a general rule, the politicians who’ve been most passionate about the cause of strengthening marriage have come from the right side of the political spectrum, where being a moralistic scold is no crime. Two Republican presidential candidates from last year – Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum ‑ are classic examples. The trouble is that for all their good intentions, Santorum and Romney are, to put it mildly, culturally removed from the Americans most directly affected by the transformation of American family life. Romney’s family in particular read like a caricature of 1950s wholesomeness, and his own upbringing as the son of an auto industry executive and governor was not exactly relatable.

The same can’t be said of Barack Obama, who, like 33 percent of American children today, was raised by a single parent. During a moving commencement address on May 19 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the country’s most renowned historically black educational institutions, Obama briefly recalled his experiences as the son of a single mother. Having praised his mother and his grandparents for the sacrifices they had made on his behalf, he said, “I sure wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved.” And so, he explained, he endeavored to be the kind of father he wished he had as a youth, and “to break that cycle where a father is not at home.”

Chris Christie, the Republican Bill Clinton

Reihan Salam
May 15, 2013 17:24 UTC

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, has a lot to be happy about. The recent revelation that he had lap-band surgery to gain control of his weight went about as well as could be expected. A less well-liked public figure might have been mocked for taking an extreme step, but Christie’s self-deprecating wit and what at least seems like unrehearsed genuineness and warmth have served as a shield. Like Bill Clinton in his prime, Christie has a mix of great appetite and great energy that Americans find strangely compelling.

And because there are only two gubernatorial elections in 2013, Christie’s bid for re-election is attracting a good deal of national attention, almost all of which has been positive. A new NBC News/Marist poll, released on Wednesday of last week found that Christie has a 69 percent approval rating, and that he leads his most likely Democratic challenger, State Senator  Barbara Buono, by 60 percent to 28 percent among registered voters. Among likely voters, Christie’s support increases to 62 percent while Buono’s stays the same.

Christie still has to overcome the fact that the New Jersey electorate skews left, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s crushing 58to-40 percent victory over Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election. One can imagine Democrats and left-of-center independents deciding they can’t back a self-described conservative for governor, no matter how much they like him personally. Mindful of this danger, Christie has been keen to emphasize his willingness to work across the aisle. In a new campaign advertisement, a narrator with a soothing baritone voice praises the New Jersey governor for “working with Democrats and Republicans, believing that as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn’t a dirty word.”

The future of Hispanic identity

Reihan Salam
May 6, 2013 18:57 UTC

In an interview with ABC News this past weekend, Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and a veteran of the Clinton White House, shared his thoughts on Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas who has been gaining prominence as a staunch, and sometimes strident, conservative voice. Though Richardson acknowledged that Cruz is “articulate,” he accused the Texas senator of having introduced “a measure of incivility in the political process.” When asked if Cruz “represents most Hispanics with his politics,” Richardson replied that because Cruz is anti-immigration, “I don’t think he should be defined as a Hispanic.”

Regardless of Richardson’s true meaning, he hit a nerve. Bill Richardson and Ted Cruz are both entitled to define themselves as Hispanics, as both have roots in Spanish-speaking countries. Yet both men, like a large and growing number of Hispanics, are of mixed parentage. Richardson is the son of a father who was half-Anglo-American and half-Mexican and a Mexican mother. Ted Cruz is the son of an Irish-American mother and a Cuban immigrant father. And so the Richardson-Cruz kerfuffle gives us an opportunity to think about the future of Hispanic identity.

As of the 2010 Census, Hispanics represented 16.3 percent of the total U.S. population. And in the decades to come, the Census Bureau projects that the Hispanic share of the U.S. population will increase dramatically, from just under one American in six to just under one in three.

  •