I didn’t like Obama's nomination speech, for reasons I’ve already explained. Neither did the New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat. Because their critiques were somewhat similar to mine, I think I’d better explain that my disappointment in Obama's speech does not lead me to the same conclusion it led them. Brooks and Douthat both argue that Obama doesn’t seem to have much he wants to do in a second term. I believe the opposite: Obama has quite a lot that he intends to do.
“What I was mostly looking for,” Brooks wrote, “were big proposals, big as health care was four years ago.” This is a slightly odd complaint coming from a conservative—even a “national greatness” one—but let’s set that aside. “It would be nice if exports doubled,”Brooks said. “It would be nice if deficits came down gradually over the next 10 years. But the goals President Obama set in these spheres will probably be met if everybody in Washington carried on the status quo. They do not entail big change.” Ross Douthat (another conservative) carried this idea further, saying the speech marked the end of the “Obama era.” Even if Obama is re-elected, he wrote, he will be “a permanently diminished Obama, with no magic left in his public persona and no mandate save to stay the current economic course. He may win the necessary electoral votes in November, but come February he will already essentially be a lame duck.”
I don’t disagree that circumstances, both political and economic, will limit whatever new initiatives Obama is able to introduce in a second term. But what Brooks and Douthat forget is that Obama is already a transformative president, simply by virtue of having achieved congressional passage of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. No president since Lyndon Johnson has changed American life as much as Obama, and Obama did it in the face of much stiffer political opposition. Both of these historic gains face continuing fierce opposition from Republicans. Getting implementation of these laws right (as opposed to presiding over their repeal, as Romney promises to do) will be an enormous task. The press may grow bored with the two reforms—indeed, it may already be—but implementing them successfully, and decreasing any likelihood that Obama’s successor in 2016 would want to dismantle them, is in itself a full-time job, even before one takes into consideration the continuing (and not-unrelated) challenge of nursing the economy back to health.
A laundry list of new initiatives is not what the country needs right now. Following through on the ones we just acquired is what Obama needs to focus on. For some reason Obama has not chosen to articulate this message thus far, but it's the best argument for re-electing him. His success in a second term cementing the gains from his first will be the legitimate basis on which future historians judge a two-term Obama presidency. Everything else is noise.