No post-war US president, including John F. Kennedy, holds a tighter grip of America’s political imagination than Ronald Reagan. Republicans and Democrats agree that Reagan’s presidency was ‘transformative’. For Republicans, Reagan rescued the country from decline after the disaster of Vietnam and at a time of flagging economic growth. For Democrats, he stacked the deck against ordinary Americans by cutting taxes for the richest, deregulating the labour market and liberating Wall Street.
Driving this summer from the home of a friend in Madison, Wisconsin to Brooklyn, New York, I encountered first hand the diverse effects of Reaganism. Pittsburgh, for instance, is thriving. Built by and formerly dependent on the Pennsylvania steel industry, the city is now a regional hub for advanced medical research and investment banking. Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia, on the other hand, all bear the scars of Reagan’s supply-side reforms. Indeed, some neighbourhoods in south Philadelphia are semi-derelict, their streets lined with gutted factory buildings and abandoned housing blocks.
And that’s why Reagan matters: during his two terms in office from 1981 to 1989, he vigorously reshaped American society. Where he saw an ‘underfunded’ military, he ploughed money into it. Where he saw ‘over-powerful’ trade unions, he crushed them. Where he saw a ‘bloated’ welfare system, he stripped it back. Under Reagan, American politics shifted so decisively to the right that each of his three initial White House successors – George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – felt compelled to work within the ideological constraints he had set for them. Successor number four, however, had other ideas.
In January 2008, at the start of a Democratic primary campaign that would stretch on until June, Barack Obama, then the junior senator for Illinois, explained to reporters why he was running to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. ‘I think the 1980 election was different,’ Obama said. ‘I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it … I think we’re in one of those times right now, where people feel like, as things are going, they aren’t working.’
In other words – nine months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers – Obama had already cast himself as a Reagan of the left, determined to ‘change the trajectory of America’ as radically for liberals as Reagan had for conservatives in the 1980s. But with Obama now in the penultimate year of his presidency, and the process of replacing him well under way, how confidently can the one-time Chicago community organizer claim to have matched – or surpassed – this lofty historical standard?
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Believer: My Forty Years in Politics is a memoir by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist between 2003, when Obama first burst onto the American political stage, and 2011, the third year of Obama’s first presidential term. Axelrod charts his ascent from longhaired teenage intern at The Villager (a popular Greenwich Village newsletter in the 1960s) to Chicago Tribune reporter, professional political consultant and then senior Obama adviser.
As might be expected from a journalist who cut his teeth covering Chicago municipal politics in the 1970s and ’80s, he knows how to tie a story together. His account of the election of Rod Blagojevich – a man currently serving 14 years in prison for corruption offences – as Illinois governor in 2002 is typically bracing. ‘The Blagojevich campaign was a masterpiece of political technique,’ Axelrod writes. ‘Armed with incisive research, Rod’s consultants had furnished him with a compelling rationale to match his boundless ambition. As a purely clinical matter, I admired their execution. They had deftly used the tools of our trade to compel into office [someone] who would prove himself thoroughly ill-suited to hold it.’
By the late 1980s Axelrod had left The Tribune and established a successful consultancy firm in downtown Chicago. A talented communicator and tactician, he helped orchestrate the election of Democratic politicians across the country. But he soon grew restless. Frustrated by the cynicism of the Beltway, he longed for a candidate with the same idealistic vision of America as his hero, JFK.
He first met Obama in 1992 but only, he says, ‘as a favour to a friend’. Obama had recently returned to Chicago from Harvard Law School and was working for Project Vote, an initiative aimed at boosting voter registration numbers in poor black and ethnic minority communities throughout the city. Axelrod was impressed with the 31-year-old but not blown-away by him. ‘Bettlyu Saltzman, a longtime Democratic activist, called to ask me to get together with Obama. “He’s a really extraordinary young guy,” she said … While I didn’t exactly leave that first meeting humming “Hail to Chief”, I could see why Bettylu was so enthused about this newcomer.’
For the next few years the two had little contact bar the occasional chance meeting at a public event. Owing to the pressures of family life (he has three children, one of whom is severely epileptic), Axelrod turned down an opportunity to move to Washington and work for the Clintons, while Obama taught law at the University of Chicago before winning a seat in the Illinois state senate. Then, in 2003, Obama – who was gaining national recognition as an opponent of the war in Iraq – hired him to coordinate a bid for the US senate. From there, for reasons that Axelrod never fully elucidates, he and Obama quickly bonded as colleagues and as friends, marking the start of a remarkable political relationship.
Believer is at its most thrilling – and Axelrod at his most animated as a narrator – when recounting scenes from the 2008 presidential contest that launched Obama, against vertiginous odds, into the Oval Office. ‘Led by the Secret Service and Chicago police, we caravanned down a closed Lake Shore Drive past a makeshift security fence that separated us from the massive, cheering crowd,’ Axelrod recalls of election night on 6 November 2008, moments after John McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent, had formally conceded defeat. ‘A stage was set up in the south end of the sprawling downtown park that is Chicago’s front lawn. In 1968 it had been the scene of bloody rioting at the Democratic National Convention … On this night, forty years later, the same park had become a moving mosaic of national unity.’
But the euphoria of Obama’s victory rapidly dissipated. Within days, the new president was being briefed by US Treasury officials about the scale of the crisis descending on the American economy. ‘Well, it’s too late to ask for a recount, so we had better figure out what we’re going to do about this,’ Obama remarked following one shock-and-awe session with his advisers in late 2008. Once installed in the White House, and after some tough congressional bargaining, he authorized an $830 billion recovery package designed to reignite US economic activity, a decision that probably saved America from a catastrophic, 1930s-style crash.
Having ‘staunched the bleeding of an economy on the brink of disaster,’ as Axelrod inelegantly puts it, Obama spent much of the rest of his first term battling to implement healthcare reform. When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – ‘Obamacare’ – finally passed into law in March 2010, extending the availability of health insurance to some fifty million uninsured Americans, it immediately became the signature achievement of the first Obama administration. Axelrod dedicates a chapter to it, including this slushy anecdote: ‘When I heard the cheers from next door [after the Senate ratified the bill], I began to cry – not little sniffles, but big, heavy sobs. Suddenly the political calculations and ups and downs of the previous year seemed irrelevant … I knew that because of what we had done, because of the president’s determination, [families] would be spared [an] ordeal.’
Axelrod left the White House in February 2011, four months after the Democrats’ infamous mid-term ‘shellacking’, which saw the Republicans seize control of the House of Representatives and make sizeable gains in the Senate. But he clearly believes that he had, even then, been part of a landmark presidency. The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, new laws to combat gender pay discrimination, the expansion of college aid and an auto industry bail-out all feature prominently on his list of Obama’s early accomplishments. To Axelrod’s inventory you could legitimately add the draw-down of America’s military presence in Iraq and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, agreed with Russia in 2010, which has cut the number of nuclear missile launchers in Europe and the US.
Then, of course, there is the simple fact that Obama is the country’s first African-American president. His administration has been so plagued by external crises – and so dogged by right-wing obstructionism – that it is easy to forget how groundbreaking his election was. The string of racist police murders in recent months, and the shooting, in June, of nine black worshippers at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, discredit any suggestion that the US has evolved, under Obama, into a ‘post-racial’ society. But Obama has directly and repeatedly confronted the issue of racism in a way that none of his white predecessors dared, or was equipped, to do. His eulogy for Mother Emmanuel’s pastor Reverend Clementa Pinckney, during which he broke into a rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ in front of a predominantly black audience, will be remembered as a defining moment in the history of the American civil rights movement.
Yet, while Obama has indisputably altered America’s ‘trajectory’ on certain key social issues, his record on economic ones is less impressive. The 2009 Wall Street bail-out was a reactive measure aimed at salvaging the US economy from the inevitable consequences of Reagan-era deregulation. Since then, progress has been illusive. Large financial firms still account for a massive and unsustainable percentage of US GDP. Pay and bonuses in the financial sector have continued to grow as average American incomes have stagnated or declined. The steady outsourcing of manufacturing jobs – championed by Obama in the form of new international free trade agreements – continues to depress communities in the former industrial heartlands of Detroit and Cleveland and Philadelphia. Reagan fundamentally changed the relationship between American capital and American labour in favour of American capital. Obama has not changed it back.
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There is, however, one area in which Obama has unequivocally eclipsed Reagan. When George Bush beat Michael Dukakis to the White House in 1988, the Democrats responded by selecting Bill Clinton, a pioneer of the Third Way, as their next presidential nominee. When Obama – a black liberal intellectual with an Ivy League education – twice trounced Republican ‘moderates’, in 2008 and 2012, the GOP countered by swinging hard to the right, with the effect of making conservatives increasingly unelectable at the executive level.
If any evidence were required of Obama’s success at destroying his opponents as a respectable political force, we need only glance at the comic parade of gun-nuts and carnival-barkers that constitute the 2016 Republican presidential field. Ben Carson, a militant anti-abortionist currently polling at 17 per cent in the Iowa primary, thinks nursery teachers should carry firearms. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee believes that Obama’s recent deal with Iran, which secured modest international oversight of Tehran’s nuclear programme, will ‘take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven’. And the putative GOP frontrunner Donald Trump intends, if elected, to erect a 2,000 mile long wall along the Mexican-American border, and charge the Mexican government for its construction.
Barton Swaim’s The Speechwriter – a diary of the writer’s years working for an anonymous governor of a ‘small southern state’ – offers an entertaining insight into the farce that modern Republicanism has become. Swaim, who joined the governor’s press team in 2003 (after completing a PhD in literature at Edinburgh University), depicts a Veep-style culture in which administration employees were terrorized by their hapless, irascible boss. ‘[The governor] would get into heated exchanges with staffers over policy issues, and the whole time his eyes would stay half closed, as if he found the conversations slightly disappointing,’ Swaim writes. ‘Sometimes he would contend with reporters over the phone, the receiver clutched between his head and shoulder, and play video games at the same time. Aaron [the press secretary] couldn’t be shaken or hurt; he could endure the governor’s cruelest and most irrational criticisms as if he’d barely heard them.’
Before long, Swaim himself became a target of these attacks. On one occasion, he received a thunderous dressing-down for attempting to insert the word ‘impervious’ into a speech. ‘“After the Revolution, many Americans were starting to conclude that the Atlantic Ocean made the new nation more or less impervious to attack.” Instantly, I knew I’d blundered. “Impervious?” the governor replied, staring at me with a deadpan look. “Impervious to attack? … You’re-not-thinking-about the audience.” Now he was pounding his desk. “You’ve-got-to think-about-the audience … You’ve got to think about the truck diver at the feed-and-seed”.’
But the governor’s ego – and career – imploded when it was revealed that he had been having an affair with a woman in Argentina. Humiliatingly, in an effort to conceal an unexplained six day absence, one staff member told the press that his employer had been ‘hiking on the Appalachian trail’, a phrase now gleefully deployed by American reporters as a euphemism for high-level infidelity. ‘Over the next few hours, as colleagues gathered in the press office to express a variety of opinions about what had happened, I kept quiet and gathered the essential facts,’ Swaim recalls. ‘He had been in Buenos Aires, not on the Appalachian trail. His mistress was named Maria … The first lady had known about it for some time and fiercely disapproved. He’d said in the press conference that he’d spent “the last five days crying in Argentina”, which we all agreed was an unfortunate way of putting it.’
As any cursory Google search will confirm, Swaim’s boss was Mark Sanford, the Republican governor of South Carolina between 2003 and 2011. In 2009, before the news of his affair went public, Sanford had already attracted the attention of the national media by threatening to veto South Carolina’s share of Obama’s stimulus money. Egged-on by the nascent Tea Party movement, Sanford denounced the stimulus as an act of fiscal irresponsibility in an age of over-indebtedness. ‘We will not be seeking the use of these federal funds for the way they put our state even further into an unconscionable level of debt,’ he said. But after months of pointless brinkmanship, Sanford relented. According to some estimates, 7,500 South Carolinians could have lost their jobs if he hadn’t, and this in a state with an unemployment rate of 10.4 percent, the second highest in the Union at that time.
Swaim doesn’t explicitly link the governor to a specific set of political beliefs. In fact, he doesn’t even identify him as a Republican. But it’s hardly a coincidence that Sanford is a Republican. Only a party as chaotic as the GOP could produce leaders such as Sanford, Trump, Huckabee and Carson with such crashing regularity. The Republicans’ crisis didn’t begin with Obama. But it has certainly intensified during his presidency, and the deepening neurosis relates not just to his ethnicity (although that is clearly a factor), but also to the threat he once posed – or seemed to pose – to America’s Reaganite consensus.
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Watching the first of the Democratic Party’s primary campaign debates on 13 October, I was struck by how radical the language of liberal America had become. Speaking in the unmistakable brogue of his native Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders, the veteran Senator for Vermont and Hillary Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, set out the case for socialism in America. ‘What democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of one per cent in this country own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent,’ he said. ‘That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 per cent of all new income is going to the top one per cent.’
In previous years, Sanders would have been dismissed by the Democratic establishment as a crank, or as the left-wing equivalent of the Republican’s hard-right fringe. But this year, ‘Hillaryland’ – which had assumed the 2016 nomination would fall automatically into Clinton’s lap – has been forced to take him seriously. As well it should. Sanders leads the former Secretary of State in the New Hampshire primary and is gaining ground in Iowa. The 74-year-old’s stump speeches have attracted huge audiences across the country. Crucially, for a candidate with no corporate support and scarce private resources, Sanders is raising massive amounts of money. Over the summer, his contributions totalled $26 million, 77 per cent of which came from small donors (individuals who gave less than $200 – by contrast, 80 per cent of Clinton’s cash comes from ‘high dollar donors’). Sanders now has the financial stamina to chase Clinton all the way to the finishing line, just as she chased Obama in 2008.
The seeds of Sanders’ insurgency were planted during Obama’s first bid for the presidency. Sanders has inherited large parts of Obama’s base, along with much of its radical grassroots energy. Paradoxically, ‘Sanders 2016’ wouldn’t be possible without the enthusiasm Obama generated seven years ago. But nor would it be necessary had the outgoing president realized the full extent of his potential. Sanders is campaigning in the space Obama opened up and then failed to fill. Obama has almost been a Reagan of the left. Almost, but not quite.
This essay is a joint review of Believer: My Forty Years in Politics by David Axelrod and The Speechwriter by Barton Swaim