But when he came to office in 2009, the cultural issues that had occupied so much of the political landscape for a dozen years had been eclipsed in importance by the financial crisis and the deepening recession.
So Obama was faced with a fundamental choice. He could either chart a bipartisan course in response to the economic emergency, or he could try to expand government to Western European magnitude as Democratic congressional leaders, elected for years in monopartisan districts, had long wished to do.
The former community organizer and Chicago pol chose the latter course.
To the surprise of many who watched previous presidents present specific administration policies to Congress, he allowed Democratic leaders to design the stimulus package they rushed into law in six weeks.
One-third of the money went to state and local governments -- an obvious payoff to the public employee unions that contributed so much money to Democrats -- and much of it went to permanently increase the baseline spending of discretionary programs, a longtime goal of Democratic congressional leaders.
Federal spending was raised from about 20 percent to about 24 percent of gross domestic product, putting the U.S. on a trajectory to double the national debt as a percentage of GDP in less than 10 years.
Team Obama overestimated the stimulative effect of the stimulus package and underestimated the strength of the spontaneous tea party movement that flared up in protest of this expansion of government.
They underestimated as well the opposition to expanding government control over health care and, through the cap-and-trade bill, to the energy sector. And the disgust over conspicuous vote-buying on health care -- the Louisiana Purchase, the Cornhusker Kickback, the Labor Loophole.
Team Obama failed to realize they were no longer running in Chicago or in the Democratic primaries or facing an electorate fed up with Republicans. And, more important, they failed to realize that vastly expanding government goes deeply against the American grain -- and against the basic appeal of their successful campaign.