In 1981, Francois Mitterrand swept to power in France in a watershed election. He united the Left and fired the imagination of the country’s youth, who danced in the streets on election night in a frenzy of revolutionary anticipation.
Mitterrand embarked on a stimulus program that would have satisfied Paul Krugman. He increased the wages of government workers and hired more of them. He boosted the minimum wage and reduced working hours. He tripled the budget deficit. In a year, he nationalized no fewer than 36 banks, along with the country’s largest industrial corporations.
The late historian Tony Judt wrote in his book Postwar that the nationalizations were meant “to symbolize the anti-capitalist intent of the new regime; to confirm that the elections of 1981 had really changed something more than just the personnel of government.” This was “change we could believe in,” taken to Gallic extremes.
Then, the unraveling. With inflation and unemployment at double digits, with the business community terrified, and with currency and people fleeing the country, Mitterrand’s “revolution” foundered on the shoals of economic and social reality. As a matter of sheer survival, he announced a “U-turn” and embraced a program of austerity, or la rigueur, reversing course on nearly everything.
Pres. Barack Obama’s “U-turn” is upon us. It is much more muted. He wasn’t as explicitly left-wing in his campaign or in his initial burst of activism as Mitterrand, and he’ll never go as far in his reversal as the flamboyantly cynical Frenchman. There’s nonetheless a whiff of Mitterrand in the air when Obama marks the extension of all the Bush tax cuts at a White House signing ceremony with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell present, but not House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Like Mitterrand’s supporters, Obama’s boosters overinterpreted his election as the dawn of a new age, and his youthful fans invested him with unrealizable millennial expectations. His economic program hasn’t collapsed, but it has badly underperformed and opened up an unsettling vista on a future debt crisis. Even Obama acknowledges his facile assurances of “shovel-ready” stimulus projects were misbegotten. In a remarkable turnabout, his economic team sold the extension of the Bush tax rates as protection against a double-dip recession.
It’s not economic fundamentals that are breaking Obama’s leftward momentum so much as political ones. A center-right country can only take so much hope-and-change. Prior to the arrival of any tea partiers, Harry Reid’s Senate couldn’t pass a $1.1 trillion business-as-usual spending bill, and Nancy Pelosi’s House ratified the Bush tax cuts in a bipartisan vote. Obama is adjusting to this new political reality rather than raging against it.
Does that prove he’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue? Obama is obviously both. He pushes the country as far left as circumstances will allow. He got the left-most plausible health-care bill through Congress, dropping the public option only when it didn’t have the votes. Then, he got the left-most tax bargain he could wring from Republicans, which wasn’t very left, given the new correlation of political forces.
Obama’s task is to position himself as the reasonable advocate for a more responsible and austere version of the status quo and paint Republicans, who want to overturn Obamacare and reconceive entitlements, as the champions of risky, unsettling structural change. Obama is in a long game. In a prescient Fortune article calling on Obama to make a Mitterrand U-turn after Scott Brown’s victory last January, Shawn Tully noted that after the French president pulled back, “government spending as a share of GDP fell from 52 percent in the mid-1980s to 48 percent by 1990.” Now, spending in France is back to 54 percent of GDP.
If he’s to succeed on his own terms as a pragmatic ideologue, Obama will be as wily and flexible as it takes to get reelected, then protect as much of his state aggrandizement as is feasible. Francois Mitterrand would understand, even if Obama’s disappointed acolytes don’t.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.