Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Transformative Times

By Shawn Healy
Is Barack Obama a transformative president? It is far too early to arrive at such lofty conclusions a mere 77 days into his presidency, but we may place forward the parameters by which we would answer the question. Two University of Wisconsin political science professors, Ken Mayer and David Canon, took a preliminary stab at this much debated subject during a breakfast program at the Mid-America Club in Chicago last Friday.

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

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!


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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