Beneath these headline measures is a second tier of accomplishments carrying considerable historic weight. A bailout and deep restructuring of the auto industry that is rapidly being repaid, leaving behind a reinvigorated sector in the place of a devastated Midwest. Race to the Top, which leveraged a small amount of federal seed money into a sweeping national wave of education experiments, arguably the most significant reform of public schooling in the history of the United States. A reform of college loans, saving hundreds of billions of dollars by cutting out private middlemen and redirecting some of the savings toward expanded Pell Grants. Historically large new investments in green energy and the beginning of regulation of greenhouse gases. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women. Elimination of several wasteful defense programs, equality for gays in the military, and consumer-friendly regulation of food safety, tobacco, and credit cards.
Of the postwar presidents, only Johnson exceeds Obama’s domestic record, and Johnson’s successes must be measured against a crushing defeat in Vietnam. Obama, by contrast, has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes—expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime. So, if Obama is the most successful liberal president since Roosevelt, that would make him a pretty great president, right?
Did liberals really expect more? I didn’t. But when you dig deeper, liberal melancholy hangs not so much on substantive objections but on something more inchoate and emotional: a general feeling that Obama is not Ronald Reagan. Obama invited the contrast with Reagan himself when he noted during the campaign, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” And yet so far at least, this country does not feel fundamentally, systemically changed by Obama in the way that it is remembered to have been by Reagan.
But here again, memory is problematic. Reagan, you’ll recall, spent most of his administration raising taxes, signing arms-control treaties, and otherwise betraying right-wing dogma. Yes, his accomplishments were more substantive than Nixon’s or Clinton’s, but they were not quite the sweeping, nation-transforming stuff liberals enjoy recalling in horror. In terms of lasting change, Obama probably has matched Reagan—or, at least, he will if he can win reelection and consolidate health-care reform and financial regulation and tilt the Supreme Court further left than he already has.
And yet Obama will never match among Democrats Reagan’s place in the psyche of his own party, as reflected in the endless propaganda campaign to give him full credit for the end of stagflation and communism, the dogmatic insistence that everything the great hero said offers the One True Path for all time, and the project to name every possible piece of American property after him. Republican Reagan-worship is a product of a pro-authority mind-set that liberals, who inflate past heroes only to criticize their contemporaries, cannot match. If recent history is any guide, they are simply not capable of having that kind of relationship with a president. They are going to question their leader, not deify him, and search for signs of betrayal in any act of compromise he or she may commit. This exhausting psychological torment is no way to live. Then again, the current state of the Republican Party suggests it may be healthier than the alternative.