Before the networks had even declared Barack Obama the winner Tuesday night, CBS historian Douglas Brinkley announced that the “Age of Ronald Reagan” was “coming to an end tonight.” Shortly before 11pm EST, Brinkley told anchor Katie Couric: “We're looking at a historic victory for the Democrats and Barack Obama. I think you have to go back to 1964 when Lyndon Johnson had such a landslide over Barry Goldwater to see how momentous this is.”
In a Tuesday night piece wrapping up yesterday’s election, Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh sought out liberal historian Robert Dallek, who similarly declared that Obama’s win “is probably going to mark the end of the Reagan era — this whole conservative impulse that has dominated the country's politics for the last generation....I think you're going to see a whole new era of federal progressive activism.”
Maybe, maybe not.
Obama certainly had a decent win yesterday — at last count, he had won or was leading in states totaling 364 electoral college votes (that includes North Carolina, where Obama leads), while McCain won or led in states totaling 174 electoral votes (including Missouri). Obama won by 6 percentage points, 52 to 46 percent. Democrats have at least 56 Senate seats and may pick up one or two more in the next few days; Democrats have 254 House seats, with eight still undecided.
In terms of magnitude, Barack Obama’s victory is almost exactly the same size as Bill Clinton’s 1992 win over George H. W. Bush. Sixteen years ago, Clinton won the electoral vote by a 370 to 168 margin, won the popular vote by 5.3%, and Democrats wound up with 57 Senators and 258 House seats.
Bill Clinton may have wanted to usher in a new progressive reform era, but he failed to pass his most ambitious piece of liberal legislation, national health care reform. Instead, two of his most notable achievements were NAFTA and welfare reform, both accomplished with mainly Republican support. And while Clinton is now seen as a Democratic president who served during a mainly conservative era, at the time of his election we heard the same predictions from thrilled journalists that Clinton’s election marked the start of something new.
Time’s Walter Isaacson saw Clinton as on par with Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as having a big mandate to push a big government agenda. In his November 16, 1992 post-election cover story “A Time for Courage,” Isaacson wrote the sort of sappy tribute to Clinton's great historical significance that most journalists are writing about Obama now. An excerpt:
Change, Bill Clinton said again and again during his long trek to the White House, does not come easily. It will take courage, their own courage, for Americans to choose a new course. Now that they have made that choice, it is Clinton's turn to be courageous.
With his computer-like mind and his joyous addiction to pressing the flesh, Clinton was a brilliant campaigner. Almost too brilliant: toward the end his biggest vulnerability was his reputation as a dexterous accommodator, the schoolboy politician perennially concerned about preserving his political viability. On one of his last nights on the trail, Clinton told a crowd that Teddy Roosevelt had shaken thousands of hands at his Inauguration. "Maybe this is a record I will break," Clinton exulted. Maybe, but once he takes office the born pleaser will have to master a different art: that of displeasing people. He will need the courage to do more than husband his success if he is to fulfill the mandate for change that he sought.
According to the old theory propounded by historians Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr., every 30 years or so the nation turns, after a respite of conservative retrenchment, to a new era of active government, public purpose and liberal idealism. "Government is not the solution to our problems," Ronald Reagan proclaimed at his first Inaugural 12 years ago. "Government is the problem." Bill Clinton, on the other hand, has displayed an almost evangelical faith in the ability of government to improve people's lives. If he can turn his "new covenant" rhetoric into reality, he has the chance to personify the type of mood swing ushered in by the rough-riding progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt in 1900, the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and the New Frontier of John Kennedy in 1960.
Once again, the mainspring that turns the cycle is generational. "It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things," President Woodrow Wilson explained to his youthful Assistant Secretary of the Navy. That young man was Franklin Roosevelt, and his activist presidency was the formative experience for the generation that came to fruition with Kennedy. Now the torch is being passed to the generation that was touched and inspired by Kennedy. Indeed, the most memorable moment in the convention video about the man from Hope was the scene of the eager student being inspired by Kennedy's anointing touch.
But historical cycles are not inevitable. They depend on the strengths and frailties of those who become repositories of the hope for change. In a democracy, successful reformers must have, above all, the backbone to convey brutal facts unflinchingly. Especially now: America's current plight has been aggravated by a willful refusal to inhale unpleasant truths about the deficit, about racial divisions, about defense cuts and conversion of military facilities, about schools and about the workplace.
Maybe Obama will indeed usher in a new era of expanding big government. But his mandate seems no bigger than that handed Clinton in 1992. And journalists have eagerly declared an end to the Age of Reagan before — only to be stymied by a public that may from time to time want to punish Republican ineptitude by handing power to Democrats, but doesn’t really want to be governed by a European-style nanny state.