“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” President Obama told the Reno Gazette-Journal in January 2008 during his Democratic primary showdown with Hillary Clinton. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it."
And how did Obama hope to change "the trajectory of America"? To "put us on a fundamentally different path"?Departing Senior Advisor to the President for Strategy and Communications Dan Pfieffer explained how recently to The Huffington Post's Sam Stein:
Because the economy did well under Reagan, even though some of the work was done before Reagan got there, we believed in this country for a long time that it was less government, less taxes, is good for economic growth. And we have been battling that conception, and Democrats were forced to play on that field for a very long time. We want to change that field.
Has Obama "changed that field"? Not according to John Judis, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority. In a new article titled The Emerging Republican Advantage, Judis writes:
According to a Democracy Corps study, white working-class voters overwhelmingly agree - by 12 percentage points more than the average voter - with the statement: "When something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful."
For their part, middle-class voters have long been mistrustful of government. In a 2010 study based on the extensive General Social Survey conducted semiannually by the National Opinion Research Center, political sociologists Leslie McCall and Jeff Manza found that those with college but not postgrad degrees exhibited more marked opposition than any other educational grouping to government spending, and to policies that promised to redistribute income from the rich to the poor.
And really, what counter examples of government working better than voluntary coordination has Obama given Americans? A signature housing initiative that both left and right saw as a spectacular failure. A trillion dollar stimulus that, even Obama joked, only showed that, "shovel-ready was not as ... uh ... shovel-ready as we expected." Or maybe Democrats can point to the auto bailout which, contra Obama's claims, left taxpayers $16.6 billion in debt.
Even millennials, once thought of as the foundation of the Obama coalition, have been turned off by big government during Obama's presidency. As Judis notes, a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of young voters found that, "on a wide range of issues and questions, young voters ... now look very much like the electorate at large—pessimistic, untrusting, lacking confidence in government."
Looking at all this hard data, Judis concludes:
After the 2008 election, I thought Obama could create an enduring Democratic majority by responding aggressively to the Great Recession in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt had responded in 1933 to the Great Depression. Obama, I believed, would finally bury the Reagan Republican majority of 1980 and inaugurate a new period of Democratic domination.
It now appears that, in some form, the Republican era which began in 1980 is still with us. Reagan Republicanism—rooted in the long-standing American distrust of government, but perhaps with its roughest theocratic and insurrectionary edges sanded off for a national audience—is still the default position of many of those Americans who regularly go to the polls. It can be effectively challenged when Republicans become identified with economic mismanagement or with military defeat. But after the memory of such disasters has faded, the GOP coalition has reemerged—surprisingly intact and ready for battle.
Republicans are by no means guaranteed a White House victory in 2016. Hillary Clinton will be a very formidable opponent.
But even if she does win, and carries some new Democratic senators with her, she'll still face a Republican majority in the House completely hostile to her big government agenda. Gridlock would again reign in DC, as it already has since 2010, and more public policy problems would be handled by the states, which are overwhelming controlled by conservatives.
Obama may not even be remembered as fondly as Hillary's husband, who, even though he did proclaim, "the era of big government is over," did preside over a sharp rise in median family income. Obama has not been so lucky.