Presidents all want to close the deal with history in their second terms, but somehow, they rarely do it. Ronald Reagan was already half-gaga and had Iran-Contra. Bush the Elder never got a second term. Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. Bush the Younger even said that he had been saving up chips and now could spend them, but didn’t. Partially Iraq, partially lack of anything he really hungered to do.
Barack Obama doesn’t need to transform everything in order to be regarded as transformational. What was Lincoln’s foreign policy (apart from trying to keep England and France out of the war)?
Obama’s best shot: exactly what his critics accuse him (probably wrongly) of secretly intending–redefining “rights” in America to include economic rights, as in Europe. The right to health care, the right to a job, the right to decent housing, etc. To be “transformational,” he doesn’t have to achieve all these new rights. All he has to do is:
a) Secure Obamacare, (a label that future Democrats will wear with pride, and Republicans will forget they opposed–like Medicare today).
b) Put entitlements on a firm footing.
c) Get the deficit on a path toward balance, and
d) Start to change the way people think about what Americans owe one another.
Should be no problem.
Michael Kinsley is editor at large of The New Republic
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