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Don’t Define the Era Just Yet

Peter Baker has a fascinating profile of Bill Clinton in the New York Times magazine (Baker also appeared on The Charlie Rose Show; that interview is worth watching as well). One of the arguments made by Clinton supporters is that he governed in a Republican era, which limited his ability to be a transformative figure. President Obama, on the other hand, is governing at the beginning of a “progressive” era. Or so the argument goes.

President Obama certainly seems to buy into this critique; he is, after all, governing as if the country were fundamentally different, and more liberal, than it is. It’s a big bet, and I’m doubtful that it’s a wise one.

For one thing, Americans — by roughly a two-to-one margin — consider themselves to be conservative rather than liberal. In addition, polling data shows the public hasn’t embraced big government, certainly not a permanent expansion of it. Obama’s victory in 2008 was an impressive political victory; it was not, based on the available evidence, an ideologically decisive one. There is, in fact, a fair amount of public wariness about Obama’s policies. Many Americans like Obama and they seem impressed with his activism, but they are a bit unnerved, I think, by the direction in which he’s taking the country. They are willing to give him a chance at this early stage, but the support is hardly enthusiastic or unqualified.

The danger for Obama, is that he is overreaching; he is using the economic crisis to push through policies that are enlarging, to a staggering degree, the size and scope of government. The debt and deficit are like exploding stars; their radiating effects may well reconfigure our politics. They may also make tax increases inevitable on Obama’s watch. More dangerous for Obama would be if his policies turned out to be defective at their root and acted as an anchor on the economy over time. Deflation may give way to a significant spike in inflation, which in turn may necessitate a large increase in interest rates.

If that happens — and the occurrence of such a scenario is certainly possible, and perhaps even likely — it may turn out that we are not only not at the beginning of a progressive era; Obamaism may trigger a new conservative one. We’ll find out in due course.


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