Rick Perlstein and Mark Schmitt: Theory of Change at Year One

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.]

[Mark Schmitt is the executive editor of The American Prospect. Previously he was a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, director of the Governance and Public Policy program at the Open Society Institute, and policy director to Senator Bill Bradley.]

This month marks not just the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration but two years since those intense weeks of the Democratic nominating process in 2008, when Obama emerged as the likely nominee. What was Obama selling? How did he build his coalition? What did we expect when he took office? And how have those expectations worked out in practice?

Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and Mark Schmitt, executive editor of the Prospect discuss Obama at year one.


Every president has a honeymoon. But Obama's really did seem qualitatively more intense than any other new presidency perhaps since Lyndon Johnson inherited the mantle from the martyred Kennedy. I began to think of the possibility of an Obama era, one as (to coin a phrase!)"game changing" as the Reagan era or the Roosevelt era. I conceptualized it in terms of fluid dynamics, a tipping-point strategy. Gently, by degrees, the median voter would see Obama's positions, rooted in traditional Democratic themes of economic solidarity, as the normal, consensual position (just like voters did before Reagan) and that voters would come to see Reagan's children as alien, jarring, and strange....

For the public to tip toward a dominant perception of Obama as the normal, and the Republicans as the strange, some effort was required on Obama's part: some aggressive line-drawing. You [mark Schmitt] were overwhelmingly right when you posited that Obama's rhetoric of trans-ideological bipartisanship can work brilliantly as a method of subverting and breaking the opposition to a social democratic agenda. But it cannot work unless the comforting leader affirmatively draws a marker defining at least a portion of his opposition as outside his governing consensus. As not common sense.

It's great that Obama doesn't criticize" conservatism." A plurality, even a majority, think of themselves as" conservative." But most, I would argue, consider the word" conservative" as a placeholder for a disposition. The most brilliant part of Obama's Inaugural Address was the words by which he described his imminent presidency: prudent, temperate, humility. In contrast with the era that just passed, it would be, a"new era of responsibility." He quoted Scripture: It was time, he said, for the nation to put aside childish things. That laid down a splendid potential point for an eventual pivot in the face of Republican obstructionism: Here's what you elected me to do. Here's why it's prudent, temperate, and responsible. Here are the Republicans who oppose us. They are people worthy of being stigmatized....


"Be mean," is a strategy that usually takes its inspiration from that amazing moment in 1936 when Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced"the forces of selfishness and of lust for power," affirming that"they are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred." (I'm doing you a favor here by substituting FDR for the hypothetical John Edwards character.) That's a strategy worth taking seriously, since"nice" obviously failed. And I don't accept that"Obama doesn't do mean" -- FDR was a pretty nice guy, too, and Obama, against all expectations, showed he could be as tough as he needed to be against some formidable opposition in the 2008 primaries and general election....

The case for mean, I think, is only that it would have more effectively fired up a subset of the grass-roots base of Obama supporters, who in turn would have put some pressure on wavering members of Congress. An FDR-style"I welcome their hatred" would certainly have cemented the allegiance of some portion of the Obama coalition. But drawing such a line is quite a daring move for any president, or anyone in a political situation -- it takes an enormous amount of confidence. Yes, George W. Bush enacted Pat Buchanan's proposal to" cut the country in half," because"we would have the larger half." That achieved some tax cuts, a couple of wars, and some costly delays on causes like health care and climate change. But it did not achieve anything that will last....


...FDR's latest biographer, Jean Edward Smith, emphasizes that as governor of New York, FDR quite deliberately pushed the boundaries of how far a state could go to respond to an economic crisis. Roosevelt showed calculation, even cynicism, in his 1932 claim to be running to balance the budget; it was a political ploy to get thee delegates he needed to win the nomination. And, of course, his 1936 pledge that big business had met its match came after many years in which the New Deal was built in close cooperation with big business, and indeed would continue to be so built. What he did in that speech was lay down a gauntlet to those of great wealth: Cooperate with me and the people, the"you and I" who have a rendezvous with destiny; or oppose us, and cast yourself into the outer darkness.

The key to presidential leadership is that it is the president, through forceful and confident and sweeping rhetoric, who makes the argument about where the line must be drawn -- about what our destiny is, and who is for it, and who has chosen for whatever reasons to be against it. For the line must be drawn somewhere....

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