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Moving the center

By Dylan Matthews

David Leonhardt's column declaring the inauguration of a new progressive moment in American politics is interesting, but it somewhat oversells what Obama's done:

The last 16 months seem most similar in scope to three other periods in the last 80 years. After World War II, the federal government helped build the modern middle class with the G.I. Bill, housing subsidies, the highway system and incentives for employers to offer health insurance. The 1960s -- mostly under Mr. Johnson, but also Richard Nixon -- brought civil rights legislation, Medicare, Medicaid and environmental laws. Then Mr. Reagan ushered in a period that continued, more or less, until 2008: tax cuts, less regulation and other attempts to unleash the competitive forces of the market.

Mr. Obama has been trying to reverse the Reagan thrust in some important ways. Although the Reagan administration did not shrink the size of the federal government, it changed the ways that Washington collected and spent its money, by reducing taxes on the affluent, cutting some social programs and increasing military spending.

It's of course true that Obama has passed more expansively progressive domestic legislation than any president since Nixon or LBJ. But it doesn't follow that the 2010s are the start of a moment favorable to progressive change similar to that in the 1960s and '70s.

Consider what was in the mainstream during Nixon's presidency. Nixon proposed a national health insurance plan that was, if anything, to the left of what Obama passed. It failed largely because mainstream Democrats preferred single-payer; the only member of Congress rejecting health-care reform from the left in 2010, by contrast, was Stephen Lynch. Nixon also tried and almost succeeded in passing a guaranteed minimum income – that is, a yearly, no strings attached stipend to every American. Carter tried and failed to implement a similar plan. Legislative outcomes notwithstanding, it's difficult to imagine Obama or any Democratic member of Congress agitating for a guaranteed income.

This doesn't reduce Obama's accomplishments; if anything, passing what he has when the political center is well to the right of that of the 1970s is that much more impressive. But it does suggest that Obama is still playing on the court Reagan built. Until it becomes acceptable for Democrats and even Republicans to regularly propose expansive welfare state improvements, it's hard to view Obama's success as part of a larger shift in political culture.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 24, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
 
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Comments

Under Health Care Reform, Health insurance is a must, but now you can easily find health insurance for $40 http://bit.ly/c3RV9F

Posted by: talbertjo13 | May 24, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I think your facts are right, but perspective may not be. Democrats opposed Nixon from the left, because that was the norm at the time, coming out of the Johnson era. But look where things went since then - increasingly to the right from Nixon to Reagan to GWB.

Now, Obama is coming out of the most conservative time in our history, yet is managing to move progressive (mostly) legislation with a Congress that is more conservative than liberal, if you include Blue Dogs, etc. The question is whether long term trends will see Obama as the beginning of a leftward shift, or a temporary blip.

My opinion, obviously, is that Obama is the "Nixon" of this generation, and that things will move leftward as younger voters grow up and are engaged, but Obama is the canary in the coal mine if you will. That could be wrong, but I believe that's what will happen.

Posted by: ryansall | May 24, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Wow. Nixon's Family Assistance Plan is one of the most mind-blowing things that I have heard of in a long, long time. Nixon's political views never cease to amaze for their complexity, thoughfulness, and utter alienness compared to modern views. Thanks for digging that up for me!

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | May 24, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

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