Democrats and left-wing pundits have long argued that Barack Obama would be their Ronald Reagan, a president who significantly shifted the nation’s political and economic landscape. With reelection and a second term, as Andrew Sullivan wrote last September, Obama would become “an iconic figure who struggled through a recession and a terrorized world, reshaping the economy within it, passing universal health care, strafing the ranks of al-Qaeda, presiding over a civil-rights revolution, and then enjoying the fruits of the recovery.”
Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, have tended to see Obama as Jimmy Carter: The Sequel — an inexperienced naif with delusions of grandeur who presided over a collapsing economy at home and retreat abroad. But for about 15 minutes after Obama’s reelection, many on the right may have harbored fears Obama would indeed be the anti-Reagan, launching a generational turn toward progressivism built on the economic and foreign policy failures of the Bush administration. Obama’s aggressive election night and inaugural speeches didn’t help.
But the defining mission of the Obama presidency, to usher in a new Progressive Era, is foundering.
1. Even before the Benghazi/IRS/AP scandals exploded, faith in government was on the rocks. As Pew Research concluded last January: “As Barack Obama begins his second term in office, trust in federal government remains mired near a historic low, while frustration with government remains high.”
2. And the big three achievements of Obama’s first term — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — are seen as either flawed or failed.
3. At a minimum, a new Progressive Era requires a public that sees government as honest, efficient, and competent. The Left swoons over the success of Big Government Scandinavia, often ignoring the region’s pro-market turn. But the Nordic Way has earned the trust and confidence of its citizens. As I wrote earlier this year:
Scandinavia still taxes and spends too much. But it is able to offset those disadvantages partially with efficient, honest, and transparent government. Both cultural homogeneity and history have created a high level of social trust, The Economist explains, which means “high-quality people join the civil service. Citizens pay their taxes and play by the rules. Government decisions are widely accepted.” In its economic-freedom index, the Heritage Foundation praises the Swedish economy for its “regulatory efficiency [and] open-market policies that sustain flexibility, competitiveness, and large flows of trade and investment.” Of Denmark, Heritage says, “The overall regulatory environment, transparent and efficient, encourages entrepreneurial activity.”
4. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year, Denmark and Finland were tied for first, with Sweden fourth. The US was 19th. And that was before this recent deluge of scandals.
Bottom line: At least Americans thought Carter was honest. But in the public’s eyes, the Obama administration now risks combining Carter-level incompetence with Richard Nixon’s untrustworthiness. Hardly a formula for a political revolution, much less a modestly successful presidency.