Sometimes, it turns out, politicians can be taken at their word. More than a year ago, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama told the Reno Gazette-Journal that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Reagan, he said, “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” The implication was that Obama, if elected, would be no less ambitious.
Just six weeks into his term, Obama has opened his bid to redraw the boundaries of our politics and expand the realm of the possible. Reagan shifted our whole political spectrum to the right, and now Obama intends to shift it to the left. Like Reagan, Obama senses that the nation is already moving in his direction, well ahead of its political leadership.
You’d think that Republicans who claim to idolize Reagan would recognize what’s happening, but they seem oblivious. After Obama gave his prime-time speech to Congress last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal began his response with a patronizing, cringe-worthy riff in which he congratulated the president on being the first African-American to hold the office—as if we hadn’t noticed. The governor went on to lay out a program that would have sounded bold and innovative if the year were 1978: lower taxes, smaller government, wave the flag, etc.
Obama’s speech was merely to set the stage. The week’s main event—and the most important act thus far of his already eventful presidency—was the $3.6 trillion budget he proposed two days later. The sums of money involved are so huge that commentators used up a year’s worth of adjectives: unprecedented, staggering, breathtaking. Ultimately, though, the numbers will mean less to history than the way Obama’s budget reorders the nation’s priorities and changes the relationship between Americans and their government.
In halting some of the largesse that the Reagan, Bush and Bush administrations gave to the wealthiest Americans, Obama reintroduces the principle of progressive taxation—the idea that the rich, who can afford it, should pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes so that the government can do more to improve the lives of those who are not rich. This is what John McCain was warning against, I think, when he attacked Obama during the campaign as a “redistributionist.” The Rush Limbaugh wing of the Republican Party has begun sputtering about rampant socialism.
Of course, one early supporter of this radical idea was Teddy Roosevelt, McCain’s supposed hero. I wonder if the Rough Rider’s assessment of today’s Republicans—staunch defenders of those who make more than $250,000 a year and who tell everyone else to buzz off—would be printable in a family newspaper.
Obama proposes a $634 billion “down payment” over the next 10 years on health care reform, with the aim of moving toward universal coverage. The important thing here, of course, isn’t the big number; it’s the fact that he is expanding the government’s responsibility for its citizens’ health beyond the old, the young and the poor. Conservative commentators are outraged that Obama would go so far as to offer a government-supported plan that Americans are likely to prefer to the hodgepodge of private insurance coverage they now have to navigate. Has the president no shame?
By including education among his top three priorities, Obama expands on a commitment to make improving the schools a federal matter, not just a local issue. This bit of intrusive social engineering was actually initiated by George W. Bush, of all people. In placing energy in his top three, by contrast, Obama reverses Bush administration policy, which was all about oil. But the bigger headline on the energy front is his acceptance of our nation’s responsibility to play its part in slowing or reversing global climate change.
There’s a reason why Obama’s approval ratings remain so high. He senses that Americans yearn for greater fairness and accountability in our society, especially after the excesses that threaten to wreck our economy and destroy so many dreams. He knows that American individualism is tempered by the need to feel community in the nation and the world.
He also knows that windows of opportunity for fundamental change remain open just briefly before slamming shut. His declaration Saturday that “I didn’t come here to do the same thing we’ve been doing or to take small steps forward” may be the understatement of the year.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group
White House / Pete Souza
President Obama reflects during a budget meeting.