Michael Kazin: Man Without a Plan: Obama’s Short-Sighted View of U.S. Politics

Roundup: Historians' Take

Michael Kazin is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, to be published in August. He teaches history at Georgetown University.

Remember when liberals believed and conservatives feared that Barack Obama might become another Franklin D. Roosevelt? On its cover, Time depicted the president-elect smiling from the driver’s seat of a 1930s roadster, cigarette holder pointing toward the welcoming sky. That dream—or nightmare, for Republicans—of Obama as both a great reformer and beloved statesman was quickly extinguished by the toxic mixture of a stagnant economy, unending GOP filibusters, the health care legislative muddle, and the president’s own failure to use his rhetorical skills to empathize with troubled citizens and inspire the nation.

But Obama has fallen short of FDR in another, equally consequential way: Unlike the jaunty chain-smoker who swept four straight elections, Obama appears to have no strategy for creating a long-term majority—either for his party or for the progressive causes he believes in. For all his talk about “winning the future” (and his undeniable intellectual gifts), Obama seems to think that solving immediate problems is the key to political victory.

In fairness, the economic collapse has provided a surfeit of crises that must be addressed, and quickly. But, from the Great Depression until the great stagflation of the 1970s, Democrats dominated national politics by balancing crisis management with the building of a multi-ethnic, cross-class coalition tied together both by such programs as Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and Medicare, and by expressing a generous ideology and moral perspective Roosevelt in 1941 called “the Four Freedoms”—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Much has changed in America since then. We fret more about obesity than hunger and fear a handful of terrorists rather than another world war. But the recipe for extended political success has proved quite durable: a compelling vision of what kinds of policies Americans need and a set of powerful institutions that can motivate and mobilize voters. To date, Obama has yet to use this recipe. And, if he doesn’t soon, progressivism in American will suffer the consequences....

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