Friday, June 13, 2008

What if Obama Wins?

Right now Barack Obama is slightly ahead in the polls. Most analysts give him a better than even chance of winning. Even if we assume that a lot of this is wishful thinking, Obama has a good chance of being the next resident of the White House. What can we expect?

Liberals (or progressives as they now prefer) are hoping that an Obama presidency will bring in a new progressive era matching Roosevelt's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society. They expect universal health care, the resurrection of unions as a major force in America, income redistribution, a new energy policy that ends dependence on foreign oil and the threat of global warming, the resurgence of American soft power and respect and a new era of global peace.

They really expect all of this, probably before the end of his first term. Just check the Huffington Post.

Why do they expect this? He has a cult of personality, he is liberal (oops - progressive), and he talks about change a lot. He also promises to be a new-style politician who will move past divisiveness.

So, how much will he actually be able to accomplish?

In the last 50 years there have been four Democrat presidents. Their record is interesting. The last two, Carter and Clinton were southern governors who ran as moderates. Both of them came from small states and were initially overwhelmed when they got to Washington. Carter's only major accomplishments were as mediator. Clinton passed a gas tax and a few other pieces of forgettable legislation in his first two years then lost control of Congress. His main claims to fame came from working with the Republican Congress.

The other two, Kennedy, and Johnson, came from Congress. Kennedy is the one Obama is most often compared to but his supporters are hoping for Johnson-level accomplishments. Kennedy didn't really do much. despite coming from Congress, he didn't have much luck in getting his legislative agenda passed.

Johnson was a different matter. He knew how to twist arms. He also used Kennedy's death as a lever, insisting that Kennedy's stalled agenda be passed as a memorial.

Obama is more likely to be a Kennedy than a Johnson. Like Kennedy, he is a short-timer in Congress. He was the most junior senator when he started his campaign. He has no history of working with the other side or compromise. His supporters expect him to cow his opponents through sheer strength of personality. This might work or it might polarize the opposition more than ever. In addition, Obama has shown poor judgment in his campaign. He has repeatedly been embarrassed by campaign staff members. He changed his answer about his church several times. He dismissed questions about controversies as "distractions". And, for a "new politician" he has been rather nasty when referring to McCain. None of this suggests that, as president, he will have the skills needed to command bi-partisan votes to change America.

It is possible that Obama will have a larger working majority in Congress than the Democrats have now. The Republicans are defending more open seats and the Republican brand name is at a low. Will that be enough?

It wasn't enough for Clinton. His attempt at universal health care never had a chance. That's because LBJ and Roosevelt before him had something else going for them - social unrest. Roosevelt had the Great Depression. LBJ had huge civil rights demonstrations and rioting. In both cases there was a feeling that things had to change. There was also a rosy projection about costs.

While we are in an economic downturn with rising energy prices, the pubic mood is nothing like in the 1960s. What's more, as Democrats discovered when they considered legislation on climate change, the public isn't in the mood for legislation that will further raise the cost of living.

Obama will likely be as unsuccessful at changing America as Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton. This could help revitalize the Republican party name. In fact, I suspect that many Republicans are hoping for an Obama win for just this reason.

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