Moses or Joshua?

As Barack Obama begins his second term, progressives are spending a significant amount of time trying to figure out reasonable expectations for him given political and fiscal realities. More than a few probably figure just defending his first-term legacy against Republican assaults would be enough. Michael Lind proposes the very big projects of radical criminal justice reform and a national system of government-supported child care, and hopes progressives can somehow forge temporary coalitions with “libertarians, populists and enlightened conservatives” to break the gridlock. Jonathan Chait suggests Obama could take action on the climate change front via regulation, and perhaps bludgeon politically threatened Republicans into cooperating with something like comprehensive immigration reform.

If anybody in either party expects significant progress on the fiscal front–or the related areas of economic and health care policy–they haven’t made a very compelling case for it, beyond patchwork measures to keep the government functioning and the financial community quiet.

So to a very real extent, if you believe (as do most observers in both parties after November 6) that the days of Barack Obama chasing Republicans around Washington begging for compromises are over, then what he can accomplish (probably even in areas like climate change where regulatory options are available, given the ability of congressional Republicans to gum up the works with assistance from Democrats representing fossil-fuel dependent states or districts) may largely be up to the opposition, and its willingness or unwillingness to chart a new course.

I’ve made my own view pretty clear that I think today’s GOP, in the grip of a conservative movement that isn’t likely to surrender its conquest of a major party after decades of struggle, is at least another electoral beating or two away from a serious rethinking of its ideology. Even that may be optimistic since, after all, the chief characteristic of U.S. conservatism today is a belief in eternal, absolute principles of governing that by definition cannot be modified without shame. And there’s always a good chance that a combination of some improved leadership, a nip and tuck in this or that policy, and a predictable improvement in GOP fortunes in 2014 when the midterm electorate gets to work its old white magic, will given the Right a renewed sense that the era of Barry Goldwater’s vindication is just around the corner.

But the bottom line is that Barack Obama has limited control over his own ultimate legacy. Perhaps he’ll just be Moses, pointing the way to a new liberal era but not governing in it like Joshua. If that is his fate, then what he seems to be doing right now–drawing maximum public attention to the distinctions between the two parties instead of standing aside haughtily from both–can at least contribute to the electoral beatings the Right needs to experience to see its way clear to the kind of “move to the center” defeated parties and ideological movements usually adopt a lot more rapidly.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.