How Has the Liberal Project Fared Under President Obama?

By Mike Konczal |

After President Obama’s inaugural address yesterday — “one of the most expansively progressive Inaugural Addresses in decades,” as President Clinton’s former speechwriter told Greg Sargent — many are looking at the liberal project from the point of view of what was accomplished in the first term as well as what is possible in the second. Paul Krugman makes one version of this argument in The Big Deal, arguing, “as the second term begins [liberals should] find grounds for a lot of (qualified) satisfaction.” Elias Isquith, Ned Resnikoff, and Jamelle Bouie discussed the health of the liberal project, especially the fate of social insurance, last month.

People will be engaging with these questions for the foreseeable future, starting in the next few weeks and continuing for a generation of scholars. I’m not sure if I have good answers, but I do have good questions. I’ve created a generalizable framework of what the component parts of the modern, domestic liberal project are so I can map how they’ve fared in the first term and what the challenges for each are going ahead. Liberalism is a project of freedom, of course. But by mapping it into component parts of managing the macroeconomy, a mixed economy, a strong regulatory state, and a system of social insurance, allows us to chart progress and retreat.

I’m going to address where I think these issues stand in the current debate among liberals, so it’ll have a “on the one hand and also the other hand” dynamic. (The framework might seem ad hoc, but it could be built from theoretical grounds [1].) 

Managing the Macroeconomy

Goals: Taming the business cycle, Keynesian demand management, full employment.

The first term began with the worst downturn since the Great Depression, and normal monetary policy was immediately put in check. The mass unemployment of the past several years has thrown this Keynesian project into complete disarray. It hasn’t helped that voters no longer think that the government is capable of doing much here, which is an unfortunate side effect of the weak response.

There’s already been an extensive debate about what could have been done to generate more stimulus early on in the administration instead of pivoting away to deficit reduction. After the GOP took the House in 2010, there were two initiatives to try and meet the GOP halfway on stimulus. There was the approach of trying to propose stimulus the GOP would potentially support, like the American Jobs Bill. Remember that Congressional address in which the president said “pass this jobs bill” over and over? There was also the approach of seeking Grand Bargains for additional stimulus. This involved exchanging, say, Social Security cuts for infrastructure spending and some tax revenue. For better or worse, but mostly better, this failed because Republicans refuse to raise taxes.

But this all means that we are still stuck with high unemployment rates for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that there will be stimulus in the second term; we should hope that some of the harsher cuts, like the sequestration, are postponed while the economy is weak.

Investing in the Mixed Economy

Goals: Creating the conditions for long-term growth, investing in public goods, protecting the public sector.

In addition to managing the short-term economy, there’s also the issue of setting the stage for longer-term growth. This is necessarily a grab-bag category, overlapping with the other categories, but it is useful to distinguish it from short-term unemployment. Michael Grunwald’s excellent book The New New Deal revived the extensive investment in energy and other innovations that were part of the stimulus. Preventing the mass firesale and collapse of the auto industry were crucial as well.

But there’s been a decline in primary and secondary education investment driven by the states, as well as a large decrease in the number of government employees. That’s largely the focus of states. At the federal level, investments in infrastructure, research and development, and education, all crucial to building longer-term prosperity, are at risk. Through the Budget Control Act and upcoming sequestration, President Obama and Congress have cut non-defense discretionary spending in order to balance the medium-term debt-to-GDP ratio. As EPI’s Ethan Pollack notes, it is difficult to cut here without threatening long-term prosperity.

The stimulus brought a large wave of investment, but that could be more than cancelled out by both collapsing state budgets and long-term austerity and cuts.

Social Insurance

Goals: Sharing risks from poverty, large declines in income, and health problems.

The obvious win over the past four years is Obamacare. Universal health care was the missing piece in the safety net, and efforts to try and tackle this problem have failed every 20 years going back a century. It also survived the Supreme Court, making it the law of the land.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin called Obamacare a “starter home,” which could be generous. The biggest fear I have is that when the government turns it on in 2013, it is viewed as a costly disaster. It isn’t clear that Medicare costs would then be lowered and the whole idea of government health-care could be tossed overboard. The damage could be greater than just Obamacare itself. Greg Anrig worries that states can still sabotage the exchanges. Sarah Kliff has an overview on Obamacare implementation over the next four years.

The defeat of Romney and Ryan means that the conservative plans to voucherize Medicare, privatize Social Security, and block-grant everything that’s not bolted to the floor is off the table, perhaps for a while. What’s possible in the next few years is means-testing the programs, raising their eligibility age, and otherwise reducing benefits. The administration’s proposed willingness to raise the eligibility age for retirement programs in exchange for non-social insurance related goals, like stimulus, is bad news on this frontier.

Much rides on Obamacare’s success, both bending the cost curve of healthcare to fix the long-term deficit and the credibility of government more broadly.

Regulatory State

Goals: Creating rules for the marketplace that check market failures and power.

The failure to tackle climate change will be remembered as the biggest problem of President Obama’s first term. He was largely silent on the issue while a bill went through Senate, though has gotten louder on the topic recently, including in the Inaugural.

Dodd-Frank consolidated regulators, added powers necessary to rationalize the derivatives market, and created a beefed-up consumer regulator. It didn’t break up the banks and the Volcker Rule is very much uncertain. It’s fair to say it gives regulators a lot of powers they should have had going into 2008 and checks some of the larger deregulations and market failures of the 2000s. There’s a remaining sense, however, that Wall Street is outside of the normal accountability mechanisms of the state.

It’s probably too early to tell how much reform was jettisoned through Cass Sunstein, the “ambivalent regulator” in charge of OIRA. But my sense is that there were genuine liberals in regulatory agencies pushing strong reform at places like the EPA and the NLRB.

Carbon is still a major threat, though it looks like the President will make a major push in his second term on the issue. There’s a growing bipartisan argument for breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks, which, even if it doesn’t turn into law, could put additional pressure on how financial elites have become detached from the normal modes of accountability and law.

What’s your take? This framework is obviously missing international and civil libertarian projects. There is the escalation of war in Afghanistan, as well as the larger deployment of drones to more theaters, both of which are major problems. The embrace of the legacy of torture is a betrayal of civil liberties. Congress will eventually need to step up and check the power of the executive branch, yet they seem just as bad as the administration.

[1] If you want a more theoretical treatment on one way to get to this mapping, John Rawls proposed four “branches” of government in a Theory of Justice that loosely map onto these categories. The allocation branch works like the regulatory state, the stabilization branch as managing the macroeconomy, and the transfer branch for social insurance.

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.