Evidence of a ‘third wave’

EVIDENCE OF A ‘THIRD WAVE’…. I’m occasionally reminded of a David Brooks column from early February. Scott Brown had just been sworn in to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, and there was a real and pervasive sense that the Obama presidency was not just moving in the wrong direction, but would fail to achieve anything else of consequence.

“If, a year ago, you had been asked to describe the administration’s goals in one sentence it would have been this: Barack Obama will usher in the third great wave of Democratic reform,” Brooks wrote at the time. “Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson had the Great Society. Obama would take the third step, transforming health care, energy, education, financial regulation and many other sectors of American life…. It was not to be…. [T]he original Obama project, the third Democratic wave, is dead.”

Three months later, with milestone accomplishments having been completed and Wall Street reform nearing completion, the NYT‘s David Leonhardt considers an alternate look at the same historical model.

With the Senate’s passage of financial regulation, Congress and the White House have completed 16 months of activity that rival any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition. Like the Reagan Revolution or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the new progressive period has the makings of a generational shift in how Washington operates.

First came a stimulus bill that, while aimed mainly at ending a deep recession, also set out to remake the nation’s educational system and vastly expand scientific research. Then President Obama signed a health care bill that was the biggest expansion of the safety net in 40 years. And now Congress is in the final stages of a bill that would tighten Wall Street’s rules and probably shrink its profit margins. […]

[T]he turnabout since Jan. 20 — the first anniversary of Mr. Obama’s inauguration and the day after Scott Brown, a Republican, won a Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts — has been remarkable. Then, commentators pronounced the Obama presidency nearly dead. Today, he looks more like a liberal answer to Ronald Reagan.

Of course, the very notion of a liberal Reagan has been to reverse the public’s approach to how (and whether) government should be used. President Obama’s efforts to shift the paradigm away from Reagan’s first inaugural (“government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”) have been subtle but persistent, though public attitudes haven’t budged significantly.

Then again, it’s hard to change three decades of a prevailing political ideology in 16 months — and in the midst of multiple crises.

But the president is giving it a shot. “The last 16 months seem most similar in scope to three other periods in the last 80 years,” Leonhardt noted, identifying FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, and Reagan’s conservatism as the three benchmarks of the 20th century.

Electorally, the next question is whether the beneficiaries of the shift will punish those laying the new foundation.

Leonhardt emphasized the fact that Obama’s efforts have a theme:”try to lift economic growth while also reducing income inequality.”

Since 1980, median household income has risen only 30 percent, adjusted for inflation, while average incomes at the top have tripled or quadrupled. Every major piece of the Obama agenda is meant, in part, to push back against inequality. Government may grow, but the bigger change will be how the government is spending its money.

The health bill expanded insurance coverage largely for middle-class and poor families and paid some of the bill by taxing households making more than $250,000 a year. Attached to the final health bill were also education provisions that cut subsidies to banks making student loans, and used much of the money for college financial aid instead.

The financial regulation bill, meanwhile, would take several steps likely to reduce Wall Street’s profits — and Wall Street has created more multimillionaires in recent decades than any other industry.

It’s possible, if not likely, that the middle class that stands to benefit most from a progressive agenda will reward those fighting against their interests. It wouldn’t be the first time. The benefits of the policymaking from 2009 and 2010 can far outlive the results of a midterm election cycle.

Either way, when we can look back at this transitional moment in history with hindsight, it’s hardly unreasonable to think the accomplishments of Obama’s first two years will belong in the same conversation as the first two Democratic “waves.”