Historians say that Obama's chance to be next FDR or Reagan fading fast

Historians in the News

President Barack Obama's dream of being a historically transformational figure like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan may be slipping from his grasp.

To be sure, he's already made one lasting mark that changed the country's course — his election as the first African-American president broke a centuries-old racial barrier.

He also could break through with bold new initiatives that change the course of history, as Richard Nixon did late in his first term when he opened U.S. relations with communist China.

However, Obama's quest to usher in a new liberal era — one with major new policies and a growing Democratic voter majority punctuating a shift away from the conservative era that Reagan ushered in — is in trouble and may be disintegrating.

Health care? His best hope now is a Senate plan that would leave millions still uninsured, dashing his promise of universal health care, and even that may already be out of reach.

Legislation to fight global warming? Stalled in the Senate.

Forging peace in the Middle East? Hasn't been able to get the region's adversaries in the same room, let alone close to agreement.

Ending venomous partisanship? Washington is more polarized than ever.

Leading his party to an enduring majority? Right now, it's heading in the other direction.

"He's tried, but to this point, he's failed," said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University. "He got things done, but they're not the historic things that are transformational."...

Much of the stimulus spending is on one-time infrastructure projects such as road and bridge repairs rather than a big change in government's role in society. Also, Obama's tax cuts are temporary; Obama now proposes to extend them one more year.

"I wouldn't call it transformative because it's short-term," said Edwards. "It's ephemeral and it's designed to be ephemeral. And, there's no support for doing it again."...

"If he doesn't get significant health care reform, it's going to be very difficult to accomplish much domestically in the remaining three years of his term," said Richard Shenkman, an historian at George Mason University in Virginia.

"He'll have the Carter problem. Members of Congress will have taken very hard votes on this, and if there's no payoff, they're going to look out for themselves and abandon him and his leadership."

Ultimately, Shenkman and others said, it's too early to say for certain whether Obama will become a transformational leader. They all agreed, however, that it looks less likely today than it did a year ago.

Said Shenkman: "If I were making bets at this point, aside from his election, I would very much doubt that he's going to be much of a transformative figure."

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