Obama’s election was, after all, mostly like every other presidential race in the US. A business as usual election of a business as usual administration. So says Princeton’s political scientist Larry M. Bartels.
Or, Obama’s election was a unique event. Barack Obama was the first person of known, modern African descent to be nominated and elected in a country with a European-descended majority population anywhere in the world. Having the first black person on the White House is change enough, contends University of Pennsylvania’s political scientist, Rogers M. Smith.
Or, Obama’s election has been a pivotal turning point for the role of the public sector in the US. What is at stake is whether public money and the regulatory power of the government will be used to guarantee private profits; or be redirected to improve the lives of the majority. That’s how Harvard’s political scientist Theda Skocpol views Obama’s politics.
They were together at one of the plenary sessions of the American Political Science’s Annual Meeting in Toronto, last Friday, September, 4. The theme of the roundtable was “Obama: The Politics of Change.”
These contrasting views among professional political analysts should sound as an alert. The after election shock-wave may be yet to reach its climax now, when major policies, such as health care reform and the climate bill, are to be decided. US politics has become highly polarized.
A few days after APSA’s plenary session, the simple announcement that president Obama’s back-to-school speech would be nationally broadcast provoked an unprecedented wave of Republican uproar. They charged with full power against a supposed attempt to indoctrinate the youth, intoxicating it with socialist ideas. Yet it was only a talk about setting high goals, study hard and persevere through failure.
Such sharp divisions are hardly supportive of the idea that the 2008 election was primarily a referendum on the state of the country under President Bush, as Larry Bartels suggested. According to his analysis, nothing very unusual happened. Obama got something like 90 or 95 percent of the support that he needed to get elected from people who strongly disapproved of Bush’s performance. In every respect, the results from 2008 look much like those from other recent presidential elections. No real voter realignment has taken place. All the change that occurred is typical of periods when Democrats replace Republicans, or vice-versa. Obama has shown so far he is also not an unusual character in the presidency.
This ideological divide on US society may have an underlying racial motivation. If this proves to be the case, then Rogers Smith is right to say that modern coalitions on racial issues, not the absence of racial concerns, moved discussions of race to the margins of both campaigns in 2008. He explained that, so far, there have been three eras of rival racial coalitions: the slavery era, when maintaining and extending slavery were the battleground issues; the Jim Crow era, when maintaining and extending segregation and effective Black disfranchisement were the central issues; and the modern era of race-conscious controversies. The battles now are over whether public policies should be “color-blind” or “race conscious.” Besides, for the first time Latino vote displayed all its strength. Obama’s personal extraordinary rhetoric powers, and very different viewpoint on US society made a world of difference.
But, Smith adds, Obama is a very cautious person, and he is not using all the thrust of this change to push for totally new policies. He’s compromising in many areas. Obama is a pragmatic, and is seeking to avoid polarization. At the societal level, however, the racial issue – color blind vs race conscious policies – is, for the first time, polarized. In sharp contrast to the racial alliances of the Jim Crow era, the modern rival racial coalitions have become mostly a partisan issue. Whereas both parties before 1954 contained segregationists and anti-segregationists, today Republicans overwhelmingly favor color-blind policies, and the great majority of Democrats favor race-conscious measures.
Obama is trying hard to be as “race neutral” in the policies he proposes as possible, while retaining in the background indications of limited but continuing support for race-conscious measures such as affirmative action. He advocated an “emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific programs” as not only “good policy” but also as “good politics.”
Whether the United States is on its way to a post-racial political future, depends on whether Obama’s combination of “mostly universal/partly race conscious programs” succeeds in improving many of the present racial patterns of material inequality.
Theda Skocpol frames Obama’s choices on a socioeconomic rather than racial line. She explains that, differently from FDR, whose government began in the middle of a bank panic, with a global depression at its height, and a quarter or more of the US workforce unemployed, Obama took office when the crisis was beginning to loose strength, and the bank scare had already passed. FDR’s first 100 days were marked by the swift approval of every measure he proposed, with no polarization between Republicans and Democrats. Obama’s “honey moon” has seen mounting opposition and bipartisan polarization. The main reason is that Obama is shifting the direction of the flow of public subsidies and benefits.
During the campaign, she says, Obama never denied he was going to tax the rich, and reduce the tax burden on the poorer. His, was the first budget to spell out a major shift of spending priority. He is not increasing spending, but redistributing a budget of approximately of the same size on a totally different way. Instead of using public money to increase private profit, he’d redirect taxpayer’s money to improve the conditions of the greater majority. The stakes are not between a “free market” and “government control,” or “big government” and “minimum government.” There is no room today for such choices. The cleavage is about what are the targets of public policies. Obama’s answer is quite clear and is imprinted in all initiatives he has taken to Congress: the purpose of public policy should be to improve the opportunities for the many, not to protect the profits of the few.
This is quite a revolution, after so many years of private use of public money in the US. Not everything changes, even in social revolutions, she notes, recalling her studies on world revolutions. Compromises will be necessary, but they can be reconciled with policies that inject new resources for the middle class along with the dispossessed.
Obama is clearly trying to balance color-blind and color conscious policies, searching for a middle ground that could lead to a truly post-racial order. In this sense, his pragmatism becomes in fact a bold attempt to inaugurate a fourth era, when winning coalitions would be multiracial.
Theda Skocpol repeated during the plenary session what she had written on a review of Larry Bartels’ new book “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.” That his thesis is both convincing and radically incomplete. I tend to agree. Particularly because his analysis doesn’t adequately account for the shifting demographics of US voters, in which white voters are a rapidly declining portion of “the lower third of the income distribution, and the Democrats, like the Republicans, must manage complex and changing alliances.” Over the past four decades, Skocpol argues, Democrats have struggled to bridge racial and ethnic divides and found it hard to forge new, post-New Deal coalitions linking the middle strata and the poor.
It really seems that Obama’s major political challenge is to build a new political and social coalition across racial lines. At the end of the day, both Smith and Skocpol seem to be on converging paths, and closer to reality. Building a new multiracial and progressive coalition is a job he cannot count on Republicans to help. In this sense he might be loosing opportunities, when he maintains a conservative course on his Afghan policy, apparently to “reach out to the other aisle.” It won’t break Republican obstructionism and ideological suspicion.
Theda Skocpol warns that he has about 10 months to complete this task. After that, midterm elections will likely reduce his majority, restating divided government. At least that has been the usual cycle of US politics, with some outstanding exceptions, it should be noticed. Anyway, it is probably true that what he is able to accomplish before midterm elections, together with what happens to the economy, employment, and real wages, will largely determine the elections outcome. This outcome will, in turn, define how much he will be able to do on the second half of his term.
Tags: bipartisanship, change, Democrat, elections, inequaity, Obama, polarization, politics, public spending, race, Republican, tippingpoint, US