Age of Obama?
The future is now out of Barack Obama’s hands. How can I say this, given that his second term has only just begun? Simple: He has already set his course—and the nation’s. His second term will be dedicated to ensuring that the course does not change. Obama made dramatic alterations to the course of American history in the first two years of his presidency by increasing federal spending to an unprecedented 24 percent of GDP and enacting a government takeover of health care. In the next four years, he will seek to maintain that level of spending as his administration oversees and implements Washington’s effective digestion of the health-care system. That will be ambition enough for him, as it ought to be ambition enough for anyone.
Oh, he has partisan ambitions aplenty, mostly involving the takedown and humiliation of the Republican Party—hardening the impression that the GOP is not only out of step but also somewhat insane and occasionally evil into a well-worn cliché. But parties bounce back. Political and ideological eras endure.
As presidents will, Obama spoke airily during his second inaugural of supposedly grand topics. No matter. None of the proposals that so gladdened liberal hearts in the wake of that speech comes anywhere close in importance to the effective takeover of one-sixth of the economy, as in health care, or a 20 percent increase in federal government outlays, as the new spending levels.
Truth is, eventually liberals will understand (as conservatives came to understand about Ronald Reagan, about whom they groused throughout his presidency) that Obama did enough. More than enough. He need not do any more.
To be sure, there will be unexpected events here at home to which he will have to respond. But he will not be the motive force in those cases. If such events alter the course of history, it will not be because Barack Obama sought the changes.
That is even more true in the realm of foreign policy, where the president has made it absolutely clear he does not intend to act boldly. He does not wish to make policy. He prefers to have policy emerge organically from events. Of course, events abroad will force his hand, just as they will domestically. But he’d be happier sitting the hand out.
The problem for the president is that he needs some things to happen for his legacy to be as historic as he wishes. And there’s almost nothing he can do to facilitate them. First, he needs sustained economic growth, more substantial growth than in the past three years, because he needs the public to think and feel that they have prospered during his time in office. Many people think this is likely to happen; if it does, it will not be through his good offices or actions. But he will benefit nonetheless.
Second, he needs the implementation of ObamaCare to go smoothly. This, too, is beyond his control, because, love it or hate it, ObamaCare will be enormously disruptive, and the disruption is more likely to be unruly than it is to be orderly. The great irony is that the economic growth he needs may be impeded by the uncertainty imposed by his health-care legislation.
If things go his way, after he leaves office, 2008 will have marked the beginning of the Age of Obama, no matter who follows him into the White House. But if it turns out he has presided over eight years of sluggish growth at best while the country finds its new health-care regime difficult if not intolerable, then the Age of Obama will end when his presidency ends, and the years that follow it will be dedicated to repairing the damage.