Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It's Official - Obama is not Transformative

Three years ago candidate Barack Obama openly speculated on which transformative president he would model himself on with FDR and Reagan at the top of the list. With Monday's column by E. J. Dionne, it became official - Obama is not a transformative president at all. Dionne admits:

No matter how much liberals may poke fun at them, Tea Party partisans can claim victory in fundamentally altering the country's dialogue.

President Obama was supposed to have altered the country's dialogue, tipping it from the days of Reagan-limited government and back to FDR-big government. As Dionne admits, that didn't happen. Instead the dialogue is where to cut government. Worse for Obama, the country's attention has moved from Washington, DC to Madison, WI and other states where budget crises are being met head-on. It is hard to be transformative when no one is paying any attention to you.

Obama brought this on himself by creating multiple budget crises in two different ways. The obvious one is the way he has "kicked the can" on the national deficit. Instead he increased spending and cut taxes. He continues to promise that the deficit will be addressed eventually. Speculation is that he will put it off until after the 2012 election. While Obama is content to ignore the deficit, a good part of the rest of the country is worried about the deficit, especially the Tea Party. That gives them the initiative.

Obama's other problem is more subtle, it is the states. Two years ago many states were experiencing budget shortfalls. They required hard choices. These were postponed by the stimulus which bailed out the states for two years. The bailouts have ended and several states changed from Democrat to Republican. In fact, Republicans control more statehouses than they have in decades. That means that they are controlling the dialogue at the state level (where the press's attention is). These governors have much more power to make sweeping changes than the President and Congress and they do not have the luxury of running deficits so they have opened a new dialogue on the relationship of government and public service unions.

Can Obama shift attention back to expanding government? Probably not. Republicans control the House of Representatives so no new big programs will come from there and Democrats in the Senate have a tiny majority and can no longer ignore the Republicans. All that Obama can do is try to put his own mark on current trends but his most recent budget failed that completely. His proposed cuts were so inconsequential that even his supporters complained.

Obama might salvage things if he wins reelection and the Democrats regain control of both houses of Congress. That would take an unprecedented number shift in seats. Without that, his best chance at a legacy rests on the constitutional challenge to Obamacare. If it is declared unconstitutional then a quarter of his first term will have been wasted.

So much for transforming America.

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