As President Barack Obama settles in for his second term, several conservatives are wondering whether it’s time to “face the reality of Obama’s success” and acknowledge him as the “liberal Reagan.” Certainly that is Obama’s ambition--to be as “historically consequential” for the left as Ronald Reagan was for the right. And the liberal media love the idea, since it reinforces their conviction that Obama is a “great president.”
Yet it is important to put the conservative panic in perspective. More than a few Beltway conservatives were eager to throw in the towel after Obama’s first win, too. Bill Kristol, for example, declared in the New York Times that “Jan. 20, 2009, marked the end of a conservative era” and suggested that liberalism ought to be given a chance to govern. (The Tea Party emerged only weeks later to guide Republicans to their House majority.)
Though Obama may indeed become a transformative president, he is no Reagan, and never will be. Reagan’s policies were a success, turning the nation’s economy around in his first term and sending communism on a course to collapse. Obama’s policies, even his signature health care law, are a calamitous failure. Reagan also won the battle of ideas; Obama debates straw men and masks his true ideas with the rhetoric of liberty.
The only area in which Obama has triumphed, and in which conservatives would do well to acknowledge his victory, is in the realm of popular culture. Obama is not just favored by the media--he is the media. His presidential career is coterminous with the rise of the social network: in 2008 he was a “blank slate” upon whom voters projected their hopes, and in 2012, through new media, he made his opponent a blank slate for their fears.
Obama also represents a demographic shift--one reflected not only in the wide margins by which he won minority voters, but in the degree to which minority voters participated in his campaigns and claimed him as an icon, regardless of his performance on the job. Seeing him elected, and re-elected, has convinced many Americans that they do have a stake in the political system--even if they refuse to see what Obama is trying to do to it.
In that sense Obama is less like Ronald Reagan and more like Andrew Jackson, whose victory broke the cultural dominance of the old colonies and brought the western frontier into the forefront of American life. Though Jackson founded the Democratic Party, he did not achieve much of lasting significance in his two terms as president. Yet we honor his memory as the man who symbolized the opening of democracy to the ordinary citizen.
We also mourn Jackson’s presidency for one of the worst excesses of big government ever perpetrated on the North American continent: the Trail of Tears, during which the five “civilized tribes” were forcibly relocated from the South to what is now Oklahoma. Jackson’s biography on the White House website conveniently omits that particular episode of “collective action.” It is a lesson many Americans seem to have forgotten.
That is precisely why Obama’s cultural dominance is so powerful. He can provide new myths for a nation that has lost touch with its own history, good and bad. In his second inaugural address, he re-wrote the history of America as the transcendence of the state past the constraints of the individual. Obama does not just want to undo Reagan; he wants to undo Madison. That is why conservatives must resist him--more than ever.