In 2008, Barack Obama said that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Obama clearly wanted to be a Reagan, not a Nixon or a Clinton. In a recent NR, I argue that at this moment “it appears that the Obama project has failed.” It appears that way because nobody is doing for Obama what George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton did for Reagan—in the first case, succeeding him by running on his political formula; in the second, showing that the opposition had to move in his direction to be successful.
Ross Douthat, in response, points out that the new Republican president says that he favors “near-universal health care, in some form at least,” and that the Iraq war was a mistake. The GOP has thus taken on board “two key planks of Obama’s agenda circa 2008-2009.”
But Trump’s view on health care is less novel than Douthat suggests. John McCain’s platform in 2008, whether or not he knew it, included the view that we should change the tax treatment of health insurance to enable nearly everyone to buy health insurance. It was, for that matter, the view George W. Bush took late in his administration. Sticking with that view is not a concession to Obama.
Let me forestall a possible objection here: It may well be that a rise in the percentage of the population with insurance will turn out to be one of Obama’s lasting legacies. That could happen either because Republicans fail to replace Obamacare or because they replace it with something that covers a comparable number of people. But you can have lasting policy achievements—as both Nixon and Clinton did; nobody has gotten rid of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Children’s Health Program—without being politically transformative.
What I think Obama had in mind in that quote about Reagan, I think, included but went beyond discrete policy issues. Part of Reagan’s political achievement was to bring the top tax rate down and to make it politically impossible for anyone to propose bringing it back to where it had been. Another part was that in the years after Reagan, Democratic politicians were much more concerned about being labeled big-government liberals than they had been in, say, the mid-1960s. They were much, much more cautious about proposing big new government programs than Lyndon Johnson. That change wasn’t all Reagan’s doing, of course, but he had a lot to do with it.
I don’t think Obama has pulled American politics leftward in the same way. Take Douthat’s Iraq War point. Did the Republican party, by nominating Trump, embrace important aspects of Obama’s foreign policy and thus make it a bipartisan common place of American politics? Trump’s distinctiveness as a politician undermines the claim: He didn’t just move in Obama’s direction about the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, but arguably overshot it.
Nor can we say, I think, that political defeat at the hands of Obama made the Republicans move in his direction by adopting a more generally restrained foreign policy. On Libya, Trump attacked Obama for not having been restrained enough. Instead of trying to minimize the distance between hawkish Republicans and dovish Democrats, he got on the other side of the split. And we’ll look on the questions of how restrained Trump is, what lessons he learned from Iraq, and whether they are the same ones that Democrats and others did, very differently if he makes good on his sporadic promises to take Middle Eastern oil.
Then again, we’ll also look at the question of Obama’s legacy differently if in the middle of Trump’s presidency he encounters political setbacks, does a 180, and appoints Obama retreads to top positions the way Arnold Schwarzenegger did in California. Which is to say that while the Obama project looks much less successful now than it did a year ago, its fortunes could still improve.