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Obama's Place In History

Let me offer a ludicrously premature opinion: Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import. We don't know what will follow in his presidency, and it's quite possible that some future event--a war, a scandal--will define his presidency. But we do know that he has put his imprint on the structure of American government in a way that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has.

The last two generations have no model for such a president. The only two other Democratic presidents of the last four decades are Jimmy Carter, a failure, and Bill Clinton, who enjoyed modest successes but failed in his most significant legislative fight. Obama, who helped pull the country out of a depression and reshaped the health care system, has already accomplished far more than Clinton. (This isn't necessarily Clinton's fault--he lacked the votes to break a Republican filibuster that Obama has--but the historical convention is to judge a president by what he and the Congress achieve together.) He will never be plausibly compared with Jimmy Carter.

Historians will see this health care bill as a masterfully crafted piece of legislation. Obama and the Democrats managed to bring together most of the stakeholders and every single Senator in their party. The new law untangles the dysfunctionalities of the individual insurance market while fulfilling the political imperative of leaving the employer-provided system in place. Through determined advocacy, and against special interest opposition, they put into place numerous reforms to force efficiency into a wasteful system. They found hundreds of billions of dollars in payment offsets, a monumental task in itself. And they will bring economic and physical security to tens of millions of Americans who would otherwise risk seeing their lives torn apart. Health care experts for decades have bemoaned the impossibility of such reforms--the system is wasteful, but the very waste creates a powerful constituency for the status quo. Finally, the Democrats have begun to untangle the Gordian knot. It's a staggering political task and substantive achievement.

The template of a powerful, historically consequential Democratic president is unfamiliar to many of us. Certainly the Republicans have no real idea how to deal with it. Look at Bill Kristol's taunting editorial in the Weekly Standard:

After his 1851 coup d’état, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the real Napoleon, pronounced himself Napoleon III. It was the rise to power of this great-man-wannabe that prompted the famous opening of Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
And presiding over this three-ring circus of liberal incompetence was President Barack Obama, who stands in relation to the towering and tragic figure of Lyndon Johnson as Napoleon III did to the real Napoleon. Have we had in modern times a president who was so out of his depth?

It occurs to me that Bill Kristol stands in relation to the towering and tragic figure of Irving Kristol as Napoleon III did to the real Napoleon. But I digress. The broader point is that the Republicans have spent a year chortling over the inevitable collapse of Obama, and they seem to cling even more tightly to that fantasy--"Incompetence"? "Out of his depth"?--as it slips further away.

Obama's accomplishments do not, and probably will not, meet those of Johnson, let alone Franklin Roosevelt. It's worth noting that he has smaller majorities, and governs in an era when the republican Party is far more ideologically radical and unified in opposition. A measure of that greater discipline and partisan unity can be seen in the fact that Social Security and Medicare both won significant Republican support, and both were far more liberal and government-centric in their design.

We can't know what the future holds in store for Obama. It's entirely possible that Republicans will gain control of the House in November and block any further domestic progress, unemployment will stay high, and Republicans will win the White House in 2012. Yet he's already left his imprint on history.


John B. Judis on the real lesson of the health care victory.

Michelle Cottle describes the Republican implosion.