Obama’s Place In History–Douglas Brinkley’s Rolling Stone Interview

Stump speeches and television commercials provide far less insight into the thoughts of the candidates than in depth interviews, for obvious reasons. I wish that this message from Barack Obama wasn’t buried on the last page of his interview with Douglas Brinkley for Rolling Stone.

Bill Clinton – how important is he as a surrogate for you? What’s your friendship with him like these days?
Our relationship is terrific. He did a masterful job, obviously, at the convention. He has been a tireless surrogate on our behalf. I’m talking to him regularly, and he’s given me good advice. Not only is he a great politician, but he’s also somebody who has a lot of credibility with the public when it comes to how the economy works. Because the last time we had healthy, broad-based growth was when he was president, and people remember that. So he can say things that people immediately grab on to. And one of the things he said during the convention that I thought was very helpful was to put this whole economic crisis in context.

The biggest challenge we’ve always had is that unlike FDR – who came into office when the economy had already bottomed out, so people understood that everything done subsequent to his election was making things better – I came in just as we were sliding. Because of the actions we took, we averted a Great Depression – but in the process, we also muddied up the political narrative, because it allowed somebody like Romney to somehow blame my policies for the mess that the previous administration created. Bill Clinton can point that out in ways that are really helpful and really powerful.

The beginning of the second paragraph is especially important to remind voters of the situation we were in when Obama took office. While more economic growth is necessary, the current economic situation is far better than full fledged depression we would likely have experienced if not for Obama’s actions.

Obama’s political views have been somewhat difficult to characterize. He has taken a centrist approach on economic issues while appearing to be on the left to the radical right. In the introduction to the interview, Brinkley has a good way to describe how Obama fits on the political spectrum:

Viewed through the lens of history, Obama represents a new type of 21st-century politician: the Progressive Firewall. Obama, simply put, is the curator-in-chief of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. When he talks about continued subsidies for Big Bird or contraceptives for Sandra Fluke, he is the inheritor of the Progressive movement’s agenda, the last line of defense that prevents America’s hard-won social contract from being defunded into oblivion…

It was the election of Ronald Reagan that started the Grand Reversal. Reagan had voted four times for FDR, but by 1980 he saw the federal government – with the notable exception of our armed forces – as a bloated, black-hatted villain straight out of one of his B movies. His revolution – and make no mistake that it was one – aimed to undo everything from Medicare to Roe v. Wade. Ever since Reagan, both the New Deal and the Great Society have been under continuous siege by the American right. Bill Clinton survived two terms only by co-opting traditional GOP issues like welfare reform and balanced budgets. Unlike Clinton, Obama must hold tighter to the Progressive movement’s reins. There are no more moderate Republicans left in Congress to do business with; today’s GOP conservatives want to roll back, not reform. Having brought Obamacare this far, the president must find a way to close the deal in his second term.

Paul Nitze, the foreign-policy guru of the Truman administration, once told me that the problem with historians like myself is that we’re always hunting for a cache of documents to analyze. What our ilk tends to forget, he chided, is that inaction is also policy. Under this criterion, Obama must also be judged by the things he won’t allow to happen on his watch: Wall Street thieving, Bush-style fiscal irresponsibility, a new war in the Middle East, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the dismantling of Medicare into a voucher program – the list is long. The offense-driven, Yes-We-Can candidate of 2008 has become the No-You-Won’t defensive champion of 2012. Obama has less a grand plan to get America working than a NO TRESPASSING sign to prevent 100 years of progressive accomplishments from being swept away, courtesy of Team Romney, in a Katrina-like deluge of anti-regulatory measures.

No wonder the right has such a gleam of hatred for Obama – he is the roadblock to their revolution. The conservative movement, however, has a crippling problem: If they can’t beat Obama with a 7.8 percent unemployment rate, then how can they hope to derail Hillary Clinton in 2016 when presumably that number will be substantially lower?

If Obama wins re-election, his domestic agenda will be anchored around a guarantee to all Americans that civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, affordable health care, public education, clean air and water, and a woman’s right to choose will be protected, no matter how poorly the economy performs. Obama has grappled with two of the last puzzle pieces of the Progressive agenda – health care and gay rights – with success. If he is re-elected in November and makes his health care program permanent, it will take root in the history books as a seminal achievement. If he loses, Romney and Ryan will crush his initiatives without remorse.

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3 Comments

  1. 1
    John Sonntag says:

    RT @ronchusid: Obama's Place In History–Douglas Brinkley's Rolling Stone Interview #p2 #p21 #topprog http://t.co/ysD7RZ2Y

  2. 2
    JimZ says:

    I’m not so sure that Obama won’t set Social Security on the road to eventual oblivion.  Extending retirement age by 2 years is a double-digit cut in benefits.  using a narrower inflation metric is also a benefit cut.  Moving it more toward “welfare” will undermine broad public support for the program.

  3. 3
    Liberal Effects says:

    » Obama’s Place In History–Douglas Brinkley’s Rolling Stone Interview Liberal Values http://t.co/O8vbSuAB

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