Obama’s Second-Term Agenda, Brinkley’s Historical Perspective

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Pro-life and pro-choice activists outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

The rest of the Rolling Stone interview with President Barack Obama — the one in which the president refers to his Republican rival as “a bull-shitter” — focuses on the president’s view of the meaning of his first term and the possibilities for his second.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed the president in the Oval Office for the magazine’s cover story and picked up the off-handed comment that has drawn headlines, offers his own viewpoint on where Obama fits into the modern history of progressive-minded presidents. He is, Brinkley writes, “the curator-in-chief of the New Deal.” And the curator speaks of his plans for another four years in the interview.

“Viewed through the lens of history, Obama represents a new type of 21st-Century politician: the Progressive Firewall,” Brinkley writes in a lengthy introduction. “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.”

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt saved the Grand Canyon from zinc and copper miners, Brinkley writes, the federal government “has aimed to improve the daily lives of average Americans.” Woodrow Wilson created the Federal Reserve. Franklin Roosevelt “was a magnificent experimenter. Credit him with Social Security, legislation to protect workers, labor’s right to collective bargaining, Wall Street regulation, unemployment compensation and federally guaranteed bank deposits.” Dwight Eisenhower gave us the Interstates, John Kennedy the space program, Richard Nixon the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Grand Reversal,” he argues, started with Ronald Reagan. Since then, he writes, the New Deal has been under “siege.” And “there are no more moderate Republicans left in Congress to do business with;today’s GOP conservatives want to roll back, not reform.

“The offense-driven, Yes-We-Can candidate of 2008 has become the No-You-Won’t defensive champion of 2012,” Brinkley writes. “If Obama wins re-election, his domestic agenda will be anchored around a guarantee to all Americas that civil rights, Social Secutiry, 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.”

In the course of the interview with the president that follows, Obama repeats much of what he has portrayed as the differences in perspective between him and his Republican rival, yet he addresses pointedly the one potential “rollback,” as Brinkley would have it, in the Republican agenda.

It has to with the repeal of the 1973 “Roe vs. Wade” Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Obama says in the Rolling Stone interview. “Governor Romney has made clear that’s his position. His running mate has made this one of the central principles of his public life. Typically, a president is going to have one or two Supreme Court nominees during the course of his presidency, and we know that the current Supreme Court has at least four members who would overturn Roe v. Wade. All it takes is one more for that to happen.”

(See Bloomberg’s Greg Stohr on this issue.) 

In the interview, as he has on the campaign trail and in debates, the president welcomes the term “Obama-care” that opponents have applied to the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health-care law that Romney vows to repeal if elected. “I’ll be very proud” if historians call it that, Obama tells the historian who had 45 minutes with him in the Oval Office. “Because I’m confident that I’m going to win this election, and that we’re going to implement it over the next four year. Just like Medicare and Social Security, as times goes on, as people see what it does, as it gets refined and improved, people will say,` This was the last piece to our basic social compact’ — providing people with some core security from the financial burdens of an illness or bad luck.”

With another four-year term, Obama says, the health care that presidents have sought for 100 years will be implemented, the Wall Street reforms he won will be implemented and strengthened and he will expand access to Pell Grants for college students. “We are going to have to get a handle on our deficit and debt,” he says, “but we need to do it in a balanced way that doesn’t simply stick it to middle-class families.” He will continue to develop oil and natural gas resources, he says, double fuel-efficiency standards for cars and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent. He is “committed to ending the war in Afghanistan by 2014,” he says, and use the money saved to do “some nation-building here at home.” Interestingly, there is no mention of comprehensive immigration reform here.

“We’re going to have a full agenda in the second four years,” the president tells the historian. `Obviously, I’d love to sse a shift in Congress where we are electing people who are less interested in the next election and obstruction and are more interested in getting stuff done.’


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