According to Mayer, a transformative presidency is marked by six qualifications:
1. Partisan realignment.
2. New techniques of public mobilization.
3. Altered foundations of political legitimacy.
4. Changed expectations of presidential behavior.
5. Major and enduring policy change.
6. Often (not always) a crisis.
Simply stated, "has the president changed the laws of political behavior?"
Mayer placed forth evidence in favor and against the case of Obama as a transformational president. On the plus side, Obama is:
1. Pushing the most ambitious domestic policy agenda since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and perhaps even Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
2. Changing the scope of federal intervention into the economy, specifically, assuming an equity stake in private corporations.
3. Using new mobilization strategies, namely email, blogs, Twitter, and other forms of social networking sites.
4. Associated with high (perhaps excessive) expectations.
Taken together, Obama has the ambitions of a transformative president, but the verdict is not solely up to him.
The evidence against Obama as a sea change includes:
1. Modest electoral results. While FDR won 42 of 48 states in 1932 and 58% of the popular vote, Obama won only 22 of 50 and 53%.
2. No support for claims on partisan realignment or "third way" legislative coalitions as fierce polarization has resumed as scheduled.
3. To the surprise of many, early indications suggest that Obama is pursuing foreign policy objectives similar to his predecessor, George W. Bush.
4. Public opinion of Obama has returned to "normal," pre-inaugural levels. This is illustrated by favorability/ unfavorability rating aggregations posted on Pollster.com.
Moving forward, Obama's ambitions place him at great risk of perceived policy failures. He has "gone public" in unprecedented fashion, which may have the effect of solidifying opposition to his policies and shedding additional light on his failures. He must also manage expectations, and account for the fact that he will eventually assume ownership of ongoing problems, unable to deflect them to Bush and others.
Canon presented a more optimistic take on Obama's transformative qualities, pointing to his grip on younger voters, his undeniable ability to transcend racial politics, his ambitious policy agenda, and an opportunity to usher in a "new kind of politics," acknowledging that the latter has yet to materialize.
Canon cautioned us that historical perspective is important here; this is not 1933 and the depths of the Great Depression. The nature of our economic problems are decidedly different, and unlike their predecessors of the 1930's, the Republican Party is actually offering policy alternatives this time around. FDR was also in a much stronger political position with Congress. He enjoyed Democratic majorities of 313-117 in the House and 59-36 in the Senate, while Obama comes in at 254-178 and 57-41 (including Franken).
Also different is the fact that FDR received strong Republican support for his agenda, while Obama's early returns with the GOP has been almost universal opposition. While this is that largest Democratic majority in Congress since 1993, Obama must contend with the fiscally conservative "Blue Dog Democrats" who hold the balance of power in the House.
As the minority party, Republicans can pursue one of two courses: bipartisanship or offer an uncompromising alternative policy vision. They have chosen the latter, pushing the politics of confrontation as polarization continues to reign, making it much more difficult for Obama to be transformative. Few substantive roll call votes attract more than 5% of the Republican vote. This compares to 35-40% in the 1930's, and 40-45% in the 1960's.
Simply stated, moderates have disappeared in both parties, leaving polarization in their wake. As a result, it is now much more difficult to build bipartisan coalitions.
In sum, Canon and Mayer provided for an illuminating discussion of the Obama presidency not yet three months into his first term. The Freedom Museum promises more of the same on April 30 at the DuSable Museum of African American History from 6-7:30pm, in a program titled "First 100 Days of the Obama Presidency." Admission is free, but please click here to register in advance. Journalist Deborah Douglas will moderate a distinguished panel that includes: author Richard Thompson Ford, Lake Forest College professors Carrie Nordlund and Siobhan Moroney, and yours truly, Freedom Museum Managing Director and Resident Scholar Shawn Healy.
Hope to see you there!