Andrew Sullivan on the Promise of Obama's Second Term

U.S. Presidents
Getty Images; AP Photo

As the fall has turned crisper, a second term for Barack Obama has gotten likelier. This may, of course, change: the debates, the Middle East, the unemployment numbers could still blow up the race. At this point in 2004, one recalls, George W. Bush was about to see a near eight-point lead shrivel to a one-state nail-biter by Election Day. But one thing that has so far, in my view, been underestimated is the potential impact of a solid Obama win, and perhaps a Democratic retention of the Senate and some progress in the House. This is now a perfectly plausible outcome. It would also be a transformational moment in modern American politics.

If Obama wins, to put it bluntly, he will become the Democrats' Reagan. The narrative writes itself. He will emerge as an iconic figure who struggled through a recession and a terrorized world, reshaping the economy within it, passing universal health care, strafing the ranks of al -Qaeda, presiding over a civil-rights revolution, and then enjoying the fruits of the recovery. To be sure, the Obama recovery isn't likely to have the same oomph as the one associated with Reagan—who benefited from a once-in-a-century cut of top income tax rates (from 70 percent to, at first, 50 percent, and then to 28 percent) as well as a huge jump in defense spending at a time when the national debt was much, much less of a burden. But Obama's potential for Reagan status (maybe minus the airport-naming) is real. Yes, Bill Clinton won two terms and is a brilliant pol bar none, as he showed in Charlotte in the best speech of both conventions. But the crisis Obama faced on his first day—like the one Reagan faced—was far deeper than anything Clinton confronted, and the future upside therefore is much greater. And unlike Clinton's constant triangulating improvisation, Obama has been playing a long, strategic game from the very start—a long game that will only truly pay off if he gets eight full years to see it through. That game is not only changing America. It may also bring his opposition, the GOP, back to the center, just as Reagan indelibly moved the Democrats away from the far left.

Looking back, of course, the comparison between Obama and Reagan seems -absurd—even blasphemous. There is, to begin with, the scope of Reagan's reelection, winning 49 states in 1984—-something Obama, in a much more polarized time, cannot hope to replicate. More fundamental is the mythology of Reagan as an unfaltering ideological conservative who galvanized the right and demoralized the left. But the reality of Reagan, especially in his first term, was very different. He was, in office, a center-right pragmatist who struggled badly in his first term, reversed himself on tax cuts several times, was uneasily reliant on Southern Democrats, -invaded Lebanon, lost 265 U.S. servicemembers, and then fled, and ran for reelection with a misery index of unemployment and inflation at 11.5 percent. (Obama is running for a second term with a misery index of 9.8 percent.) Reagan also got major flak from his right wing, as Obama has from his left. A classic excerpt in early 1983 from The Miami Herald: "Conservatives may not back President Reagan for reelection in 1984 unless he reverses what they consider 'almost a stampede to the left' in the White House." Reagan's Republicans lost 26 seats in 1982, down 13 percent from their previous numbers. That same year, Reagan's approval ratings sank to 35 -percent—several points lower in his first term than Obama's ever reached. If you compare Gallup's polls of presidential approval, you also see something interesting: Obama's first-term -approval—its peaks and valleys—resembles Reagan's more than any other recent president; it's just that Obama's lows have been higher and his highs lower. Reagan struggled. By his reelection in 1984, he'd been buoyed by a rebirth of economic growth and -lower -inflation—but it was in his second term that he became the icon he remains today.

It was the continuation of economic growth, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the tax and immigration reforms of 1986 that put Reagan in the top tier of transformational presidents. And the change has been as permanent as any can be in politics. Tax rates in the U.S.—even if Obama's plans to increase the top rate go into effect—remain in the Reagan range. Clinton himself validated the new low-tax era. Obama cut taxes still further in the stimulus (with no House Republican support). Reagan's immigration reform, meanwhile, changed the ethnic and electoral makeup of America for generations. Reagan's fuller legacy came with the crumbling of the Soviet empire in Eastern and Central Europe under his successor, George H. W. Bush. Of course, Reagan didn't singlehandedly achieve all these things. But he was their enabler.

Obama's first term looks very similar—two big initial wins, the stimulus and universal health care, that became a liability in the midterm election. Obama's mid-term crash was worse than Reagan's, and his opposition far less accommodating. Reagan won 48 Democratic House and 37 Democratic Senate votes for his first signature policy, the tax cuts; Obama got zero and three Republican votes, respectively, for a stimulus in the worst recession since the 1930s. Those are the fruits of polarization. Nonetheless, the administration has soldiered on since 2010, and the tally of achievements is formidable: the near-obliteration of al Qaeda, democratic revolutions in the Arab world that George Bush could only have dreamed of, the re-regulation of Wall Street after the 2008 crash, stimulus investments in infrastructure and clean energy, powerful new fuel-emission standards along with a record level of independence from foreign oil, and, most critically, health-care reform. Now look at what Obama's second term could do for all of these achievements. It would mean, first of all, that universal health care in America—government subsidies to people so they can afford to purchase private insurance and a ban on denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions—becomes irreversible. Yes, many details of the law would benefit from reform, experimentation, and fixes—especially if Republicans help to make them. But it's still the biggest change in American health care since the passage of Medicare in 1965.

An Obama victory would also resolve the three-decade-long battle between taxes and spending initiated by Reagan and intensified by the orgy of spending under George W. Bush and the collapse of revenue during the Great Recession. By Dec. 31 of this year, a deal must be struck or the crudest form of government cuts—sequestration of defense and entitlements—will unfold alongside the sunsetting of the Bush tax cuts. Obama's previous position had been to favor a roughly 2.5 to 1 spending-cut to tax-hike formula, along with a return to Clinton-era rates on the very wealthy. He's also open to tax reform as a way to raise revenue while minimizing rate increases, as his own Simpson-Bowles commission recommended (after being torpedoed by Paul Ryan). So far, the GOP has refused even a 10 to 1 deal with no revenue increases at all. If Obama wins the election handily, it will be very hard for the GOP to offer the same intransigence on revenue and allow both defense to be cut so crudely and tax increases to go up on everyone automatically. Republicans will have to deal—especially if the chief strategist for their obstruction, Paul Ryan, loses a national election.

Reagan struggled badly in his first term, taking flak from his right wing and running for reelection with the country just emerging from a deep recession. David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images

Or maybe they won't. It's always possible that the Republicans will not change; that even if they lose seats this November, the remaining members will be even more intransigent, and from safer seats. But it's more likely, it seems to me, that a second big loss to a man they have derided as a nobody will concentrate minds. And the threat to the Pentagon could galvanize them. Again, Obama's long game was designed for this climactic moment. When it became clear last summer that a grand bargain was impossible, Obama cut a deal that would put the Pentagon, the Bush tax era, and popular entitlements simultaneously on the chopping block after the election, a combo, understandably dubbed Taxmageddon, that could very well tip the U.S. economy back into recession. Romney now says he regrets the deal. He is right to. It gives a reelected Obama maximal leverage in a period when a critical decision really has to be made. If the GOP refuses to budge, they lose two of their most treasured policies: big defense spending and Bush's tax legacy. And they could be blamed for the resulting economic damage. In some ways, Obama's second term could be fiscally defined by the last two months of his first.

If a grand bargain eludes both sides, there's still a fallback for Obama: a 1986-style tax reform along bipartisan lines. Obama wants it; Ryan wants it. There will be differences in emphasis, of course—and, for what it's worth, I favor as radical an overhaul as possible, not simply to make the tax code understandable to everyone, but also to push back against the countless locust lobbyists who get paid a fortune to rig it. Tax reform would also provide a way to raise revenue without raising rates, helping both parties and the economy. Obama would be wise to aim for it—just as Reagan did.


Then there's immigration reform, an obvious priority for the Democrats and Obama. If the president is reelected it will, in part, be because he's won a huge majority among the fastest-growing part of the electorate: Latinos. If enough Republicans realize that their future as a party rests on reaching out to that constituency, then there's a chance real reform could get through the Congress. Under Obama, deportations of illegal aliens are double what they were under his predecessor; and the number of border agents is at a record high. Both give him conservative credibility on the issue, if only the right would acknowledge it. There is a deal to be made here—one that Karl Rove and Jeb Bush would support—and the same one George W. Bush attempted to make. A reelected and recapitalized Obama could seal it—and become a Latino icon overnight.

In foreign policy, where presidents often focus in their second terms, Obama has much less of a security challenge than Reagan did, facing down a global nuclear power with the ability to wipe out the U.S. entirely if it wanted to. Obama's primary concern is containing the nuclear ambitions of a country (Iran) lacking a single nuclear bomb and with a Supreme Leader who has publicly asserted that detonating one would be a great sin. Obama has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran that are biting the regime hard, severely restricting its ability to sell oil on the world markets. The country's currency has collapsed and inflation is soaring. Their main regional ally, Syria, is in civil war. We have seen that the regime has threadbare legitimacy with many Iranians, especially among the huge youth generation.

To date, Obama's response has been like Reagan's: provide unprecedented military defense systems for Israel, deploy our best technology against Iran, inflict crippling sanctions, and yet stay prepared, as Reagan did, to deal with the first signs of sanity from Tehran. Could Obama find an Iranian Gorbachev? Unlikely. But no one expected the Soviet Union to collapse as Reagan went into his second campaign either, and it had not experienced a mass revolt in his first term, as Iran did in Obama's. And yet by isolation, patience, allied unity, and then compromise, the unthinkable happened. I cannot say I am optimistic—but who saw the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1984?

What I'm describing here is a potential, not a prediction. But imagine a two-term presidency that prevented a second Great Depression, killed bin Laden, decimated al Qaeda, reformed immigration, ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, got a bipartisan deal on taxes and spending, and maybe—just maybe—presided over the democratic revolutions in the Arab world with the skill that the first President Bush showed as new democracies were emerging in Eastern Europe. Much of the groundwork for this has already been laid: health-care reform and Wall Street regulation just need time to be implemented fully. The Arab revolutions are in early formative stages. The economic growth that will only accelerate if Taxmageddon is averted will redound to Obama's popularity the way it did with Reagan. The potential for a huge payoff if Obama is reelected—from the debt to Iran to jihadism to -immigration—is enormous.

The main stumbling block remains the current Republican Party. If the GOP responds to a defeat by lurching even further to the right, Obama will likely fail to match Reagan's achievements. He needs to persuade a sufficient number of Republicans in the House and Senate that their refusal to compromise on tax revenue at all is partly why they lost, that opposing immigration reform could doom them forever, and that tax reform can be a common and popular bipartisan cause. The GOP has purged so many of its moderates that this may be difficult. But already, as they sense the way the political winds are blowing, some Republican candidates have discovered that a promise to compromise is helping them in their campaigns. When Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party favorite who knocked off Richard Lugar in a primary, says he will "work with anyone" once he is elected, you know the tides may be shifting. Even Tea Party Senate leader, Jim DeMint, has said that if Obama wins, the GOP will have to give some ground on taxes: "We're not going to save our defense unless we go along with the president's wishes to raise taxes." We cannot know what will happen, but there must remain somewhere in the GOP a residual instinct to prefer playing a part in a solution to intensifying the problem for partisan gain—especially with a president they cannot defeat again. But this last gasp of civic responsibility will most likely revive only if the current GOP loses decisively this November. Defeat is the only thing fanatics understand. And defeat is something the remaining Republican moderates can build on. If you are a Republican who wants to see your party return to the center, reelecting Obama is the single most effective thing you can do. Look what Reagan's success did to the Democrats: it gave us the centrist Bill Clinton. A future centrist Republican president is out there somewhere—but electing Romney-Ryan would strand him or her further out in the wilderness.

I could be dreaming, I know. No doubt, my hope will be mocked as another dewy-eyed, liberal big-media fantasy. But I wore a Reagan '80 button in high school for the same reason I wore an Obama T-shirt in '08—not because their politics were the same, but because they were both right about the different challenges each faced, and both dreamed bigger than their rivals in times of real crisis.

The hope many Obama supporters felt four years ago was not a phony hope. We didn't expect miracles, but a long, brutal grind against the forces and interests that brought the U.S. to its 2009 economic and moral nadir. I've watched this president face those forces and interests with cunning and pragmatism, but also platinum-strength persistence. Obama never promised a mistake-free presidency, or a left-liberal presidency, or an easy path ahead. He always insisted that he could not do for Americans what Americans needed to do for themselves. In his dark and sober Inaugural Address he warned that "the challenges we face are real, they are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time."

But in a first term, he ended the Iraq War on schedule, headed off a second Great Depression, presided over much more robust private-sector job growth in his recovery than George W. Bush did in his, saved the American automobile industry, ended torture, and saw his own party embrace full marriage equality and integrate gays into the military. If those liberals who voted for him in 2008 think this is somehow a failure or a betrayal, in the context of the massive crisis he inherited, then they could not have been serious about real change in the first place. But some of us were—and still are. We understood that real change meets real resistance. In fact, you only know it's real when the resistance is so strong. And the proper response to that resistance is not to fire the president who made this Reagan-like first-term progress in a far worse economic and fiscal climate, but to redouble on the Obama promise, to insist that America's profound problems can only be addressed by a compromising president making bipartisan deals. And which ticket is likelier to compromise with the other party: Obama–Biden or Romney–Ryan? The question answers itself.

Just as Reagan became an icon only in his second term, Obama needs four more years to entrench and build upon the large, unfinished strides in his first term. That's why, if you backed Obama in 2008, as a liberal wanting change, as an independent wanting pragmatic solution-seeking, or as a conservative hoping to drag the GOP back from Palin-style insanity, it makes no sense to bail on him now. Because this is when the payoff of the long game really kicks in, when stronger economic growth will put a wind at the president's back, when a bipartisan deal on debt could lift business confidence and accelerate recovery, when universal health-care reform becomes irreversible and health-care spending is slowed, when the last soldier leaves Afghanistan, when millions of illegal immigrants can come out of the shadows and help build the next economy, and when the spiraling emotions of religious warfare can be calmed, managed, and handled, rather than intensified, polarized, and spread more widely.

This was always Obama's promise. He has not betrayed it. And we—yes, we—-deserve a chance to fulfill it.