In 2008, liberals had more reason to hope. Obama ran the most unapologetically idealistic campaign in memory. Surely Americans were ready for some full-tilt-boogie government activism. Indeed, the polls said as much, with large numbers of Americans supporting health care reform and other liberal action items. Obama himself said that he saw himself as a Bizarro-world Reagan (or words to that effect), and he sought to usher in a left-wing version of the Reagan era three decades earlier. It was, he proclaimed, "an inflection point" in history. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter dutifully dusted off and updated Schlesinger's cycles theory a month before the election. You see, since the conservative era didn't begin until the tax revolts of 1978, so -- voilà! -- the liberal era should begin right now with Obama.
"Leftward ho!" Alter proclaimed.
A little more than a year later, we surely have been hoing leftward. But it already seems as if the American people are sick of it. The 2009 off-year elections might not have been a repudiation of Obama, but they were definitely not an embrace of Obamaism. Meanwhile, by nearly 2 to 1, Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Obama's approval ratings have slumped severely. Independent voters have abandoned the Democrats. The only populist fervor out there is fueling the anti-tax, pro-limited-government "Tea Party" movement, which is now more popular than either the GOP or the Democrats. Even last spring, when anti-Wall Street fervor was justifiably high, more Americans viewed "big government" as a bigger threat to the country than "big business."
Obama's signature domestic policy goal, health care reform, is decidedly unpopular with a majority of Americans. And a Rasmussen Reports poll last week found that 70 percent of respondents either support waterboarding the Christmas bomber suspect or are unsure whether we should. Only 30 percent subscribe to Obama's position. And that's after an unsuccessful terrorist attack.
Whatever you make of these facts, it seems fair to say they do not amount to kindling for a prairie fire of progressive activism, even if an improving economy lifts Obama's numbers.
One possibility is that Schlesinger was right, but not in a way he or his liberal peers would like. Perhaps we do move in cycles of reform every generation or so, but reform doesn't need to be synonymous with liberal do-goodery. Welfare reform was reform, too, even if the left hated it. And George W. Bush's "big government conservative" activism might have infuriated the left, but that doesn't mean normal Americans didn't see it as government activism all the same.
Or perhaps there are no laws of history, and Obama was simply wrong about being the chosen deliverer for a new progressive era. Perhaps, for all the liberal celebrating last year, the reality is that Obama fulfilled his mandate the moment he was sworn in as President Not-Bush, and it's hangovers for as far as the eye can see.