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Reshaping America


Tom Switzer

Like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan, Obama is transforming America.

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Obama sworn in for second term

RAW VISION: US President Barack Obama takes the oath of office in an intimate White House ceremony.

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Throughout American history, only a few presidents have brought about truly lasting transformational change: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Having saved the union in the Civil War, Lincoln set the scene for seven decades of Republican hegemony that included only two Democratic presidents.

With FDR's New Deal coalition, his Democrats won the White House in seven of nine elections. After reshaping government and winning the Cold War, Reagan presaged two decades of conservative governance (including a Democratic president who proclaimed the end of big government).

Historic change: US President Barack Obama.

Historic change: US President Barack Obama. Photo: Supplied

All thought big, brought dramatic change at a time of domestic crisis, energised their parties and attracted new voters. Crucially, all presided over an ideological realignment in Washington.

Barack Obama has always aimed to be a consequential president.

During the Democratic primaries in 2008, he praised Reagan as a ''transformational president'' in a way that Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were not. Reagan, Obama said, ''put [America] on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it''.

As he prepares for his second term, it is clear that the ''transformation'' Obama himself has envisaged is a return to the pre-Reagan era of government expansion and left-liberal ascendancy.

He may be succeeding. As the distinguished conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer concedes, Obama's forthright attempt to undo the Reagan revolution with a burst of interventionist liberal governance is the theme animating his presidency.

Consider the past four years:

■ A near $1 trillion stimulus, the largest spending bill in US history, which included the vast expansion of domestic spending and eventually the first income tax increase in nearly two decades.

■ A national healthcare program that has begun one of the most massive wealth redistributions in American history.

■ Major financial reform, which has led to unprecedented government power in the financial marketplace.

In American terms, Obama's agenda is amounting to the most radical ideological change in generations. Despite high unemployment and huge deficits as far as the eye can see, he won re-election convincingly. He is now putting his divided opponents on the political back foot.

True, the Democratic left has attacked Obama for not being liberal enough. After all, he has failed to close the Guantanamo detention camp, pass an emissions trading scheme and end the Afghanistan war earlier in his term. This President is no dove, but neither is he a neo-conservative global crusader.

It is also true that Obama's transformational agenda has failed to kick-start a battered economy.

Nor has it solidified his Democratic majority: his expansion of government spending and debt led to a backlash in the form of the Tea Party in 2009 and subsequently a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Nonetheless, Obama's America has become a more progressive place. Take social issues. As recently as 2010, Obama opposed gay marriage. Last year he changed his mind and his U-turn did not hurt his political prospects one jot. In November, voters adopted a same-sex marriage initiative in as many as four states. This was after 32 defeats at the ballot box.

Take race. As minorities (Latinos, Asians and African-Americans) increase, the white share of the national vote declines. This trend, according to many political experts, represents a growing political liability for the right. But even conservatives are changing.

In South Carolina (of all places), a Republican Governor, a daughter of immigrants from India, recently appointed a black Republican to be the state's senator. The front runners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 are Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American Governor of Louisiana, and Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from Florida. African-Americans have been governors of majority-white states and mayors of majority-white cities.

Meanwhile, the so-called Millennials - those aged between 18 and 29 - are far more progressive on drug reform, gun control, abortion rights and same-sex issues than their parents. They also take a more dovish view on foreign policy. According to a Chicago Council survey last year, a majority want America to ''stay out'' of world affairs.

To the extent that such attitudes prevail, they may contradict the idea that America is The Right Nation (the title of a 2004 award-winning book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.)

In any case, Australians are entitled to be confused. On gun control, John Howard is to the left of many Democrats; on gay marriage, Julia Gillard is to the right of Dick Cheney.

Still, the point here is that Obama's presidency has already been momentous. For better or worse, he has transformed American politics.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger jnr once observed that American history tends to be in distinct and predictable cycles - decades of conservative governance alternating with decades of progressive reform.

By re-electing Obama, Americans have not only closed the first cycle. They may give more momentum to the second.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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  • 1- All presidents set out to "transformational", it's the nature of the job.
    2- The "wealth redistribution" program is simply trying to recreate a middle class which drives and maintains a stable economy. The rich pay the lowest rate of tax in decades since Reagan began the trickle down economy farce. The B movie actor that ran up the credit card and deregulated everything.
    3- "Unprecedented government power" in the financial markets is simply restoring some regulation and oversight that has previously existed.
    4- Race is killing the traditional rich white guy GOP. You can hold up a few token governors, but Latino voters have started moving to the historical GOP strongholds and have eroded the base.

    I know Tom can imagine himself sipping mint juleps on the porch of the family plantation, but that was then, this is now, deal with it.

    Date and time
    January 21, 2013, 7:13AM
    • After 8 years of Obama, the American Idea will be dead.

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 10:07AM
    • Spot on MJ!

      If Tom were American he would be one of the Republicans who would refuse to negotiate anything. No negotiation means no democracy and this on top of the tea party that was covertly set up by super rich americans with the sole pupose of making them even disgusting!
      Fortunately enough americans and the race change realised this and the tea party republicans didnt get in. America would of never been able to return if this group had got in. they would of stripped ever last dollar from the carcass of the united states if hey had!

      America has had its middle class greatly reduced because the super rich have been so successful with political funding and manipulations like the tea party.
      The larger the midlle class the more stable, happy and productive the population is!
      The republicans need to get a grip on this and let go of the excessive greed and power needs.
      Until hen they will become more marginalised as more americans realise they are in it for just 5% of the population!

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 10:41AM
    • I believe the Reaganomics came out of the early Chicago school of economics in the 70's and 80's but over time the theories of the free market solving all problems has been shown to be false. The freshwater economists are of the opinion that government intervention is a necessary evil. The saltwater economists are still hanging on to the old theories.

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 2:08PM
    • Many Australians would be surprised to learn that most Americans want equality, at least in principle. Americans' support for the principle of equal treatment has again dramatically risen; the proof being the very high primary votes counted for President Obama in the 2012 election. Whilst many (extreme) right conservatives want to retain greater individual freedom (to make greater individual wealth) the support amongst the majority for equality of opportunity is seen when examining Health and Education issues. Her in Australia we see a similar pattern as the (extreme) conservative elite want to make greater individual wealth paying as little tax as is possible. A recent study (Harvard-Boston) showed that the very rich in America actually pay less than half in taxes to support the national defence and policing sectors when compared with the middle classes, that is, those people living amongst us, who've saved approximately 7 times their average incomes by the age of 50. I suspect that the same outcomes might be seen in Australia today as the owners of businesses (capital) seek ways to even reduce further the average incomes. In any event President Obama has a clear mandate to redistribute wealth.

      Adam Smith
      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 2:59PM
  • Your sentence, quote, "But even Conservatives are changing" has, according to my way of thinking, always been the way forward, even in Australia under the current Gillard Government. The left will always influence the right and in time what seems radical will become conservative and so on.

    Adam Smith
    Date and time
    January 21, 2013, 7:29AM
    • @Adam........when both parties started in the US the Democrats were the conservatives & the Republicans were the progressives. How times have changed.
      Not that different to the Libs & their changes over the years.

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 8:30AM
    • Bazza, you are entirely correct, In fact the two major U.S.A. parties are among the oldest in the world. In Australia, The Australian Labor Party, the invention/idea, being closely associated with the U.S. Democratic Party. Its interesting to note that the Democratic Party, founded in 1828 but with connections going back into the 1700s, has a strong claim to being the oldest political party in existence. Its near rival is most probably the British Conservative Party, formed about 1830, about two decades before the U.S. Republican Party was formed in around 1855. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have been supported for more than 100 years and remain an integral part of U.S. American history. In Australia the ALP is more than 100 years old when compared to the Liberal Party of Australia which is about 65 years old. In any event Australia as a modern Democracy has been served well by both parties and I think it would be a mistake if we all supported the changes in our electoral system as seemingly proposed by Mr Abbott MP.

      Adam Smith
      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 12:02PM
    • Adam,in a way, if a conservatives have changed, they aren't really conservatives anymore, at least in the literal sense of the word, but I get what you're saying and it's a good point.

      Kylie Plodgett
      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 2:39PM
  • More like changing it into a terrorist organisation and stalin police state. Instead of 'I have a dream', Obama's call is 'I have a drone'. He is responsible for the murder of 220000 innocent lives in the countries he has invaded. I hate how journalists make titles like ' 8 killed by drone in xxx - including 3 terrorists' but fails to mention that the other 5 were innocent civilians. Why are reporters too scared to publish the facts on this guy and his terrorist government?

    Date and time
    January 21, 2013, 8:28AM

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