In the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 election, John Judis of The New Republic declared that the country had completed a Democratic realignment — that American politics had fundamentally shifted to the left. Accordingly, Judis argued, President-elect Obama and his Democratic allies should act boldly:
Americans, to be sure, are always reluctant to undertake ambitious government initiatives. . . . But, as [Franklin] Roosevelt discovered when he was elected, a national crisis creates popular willingness to entertain dramatic initiatives. Moreover, Obama will not face the same formidable adversaries that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had to confront. The Republican Party will be divided and demoralized after this defeat.
President Obama heeded Judis’s advice — and, as a result, his domestic agenda has been stalled for more than a year. With the exception of the wasteful stimulus bill, he and his Democratic allies have been unable to push their reforms through Congress. They have failed to pass a cap-and-trade bill, education reform, and their leftist overhaul of the health-care system. President Obama’s tenure has so far been characterized by legislative gridlock — with Republicans united in opposition to the president and Democrats badly fractured.
Obama’s first-year record of legislative achievement stands in stark contrast to that of Ronald Reagan. Within months of taking office, Reagan signed into law the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA) of 1981. The ERTA remains the most important piece of domestic legislation of the last 40 years; it cut tax rates across the board and indexed them to inflation.
The contrast between Reagan and Obama presents an interesting puzzle. Why was one so successful in achieving his principal domestic-policy reform while the other has failed to date? After all, both entered office with large victories; Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter by ten points, while Obama defeated John McCain by seven. This question becomes all the more curious when one considers that Obama’s party has majorities in both chambers, while Reagan had to deal with a House of Representatives controlled by the opposition.
The explanation involves three important factors. Reagan’s electoral appeal was geographically broader than Obama’s; Reagan’s domestic reforms addressed a pressing need, while Obama’s have ignored such needs; and Reagan’s campaign specifically advocated the reforms he would ultimately sign into law, while Obama’s campaign positions were vague and often different from what he has promoted as president.
First, while it is true that Obama’s popular-vote margin nearly matched Reagan’s, the latter’s victory was substantially broader. Reagan won 489 of 538 electoral votes, while Obama won 365. Additionally, Reagan won 308 House districts, while Obama won 242. This difference is relevant when it comes to pushing legislation through Congress. Reagan could say to 308 representatives and 88 senators, “Your constituents voted for me, which obliges you to support my legislative program.” Obama cannot make that argument to nearly as many members of Congress. Also, though the Democrats controlled the lower chamber in 1981, that control depended on conservative southern Democrats, who often backed the Gipper.
Second, Reagan’s major domestic initiative addressed a more pressing need than Obama’s does. As David Brady and Craig Volden argue in Revolving Gridlock, the economic crunch of the 1970s was good for federal coffers but bad for average voters:
Inflation had a positive effect on the budget because as inflation rises, wages and prices rise, pushing taxpayers into higher brackets and thus increasing the amount of revenue collected by the government. . . . The rise of inflation, however, had a down side from a politician’s viewpoint. Taxpayers knew that, despite their higher salaries, they had less real income; and taxpayers on fixed incomes were hurt by increased taxes on private property.