In 2009, Pundits Predicted a New Progressive Era. It Never Came.

We’ll have to wait to find out whether Joe Biden’s domestic agenda will actually reflect the surprisingly progressive noises he’s been making since his swearing in. But the exultant days and weeks surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration offer a cautionary tale.

US President Barack Obama speaks as Vice President Joseph Biden listens at the White House in March, 2009. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Just ahead of his inauguration, Joe Biden released the details of a stimulus package that is almost certain to represent the most consequential legislative item of his first year in office. On its face at least, the plan is clearly more ambitious than the one that emerged in the early days of the Obama presidency. Coming in at nearly $2 trillion, today’s bill, if passed as written, would be more than a third larger than its 2009 equivalent — representing not only a break with decades of fiscal orthodoxy but also with Biden’s own past as an especially vocal deficit hawk.

As Paul Heideman recently explained in Jacobin, Biden’s newfound boldness reflects a wider shift in the business consensus around public deficits (the US Chamber of Commerce, for example, has actually endorsed Biden’s COVID rescue bill in spite of its $1.9 trillion price tag). True to form, Biden has also indicated that he wants to seek bipartisan support for the deal. Still, his apparently unabashed embrace of large scale public spending certainly leaves the impression of a president preparing to govern to the left of the last two Democratic administrations, at least on the domestic policy front. As the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter put it: “Despite [the] oddities and disappointments in Biden’s proposal, there is simply no denying that his program is more ambitious and progressive than the economic agenda of former President Barack Obama.”

We’ll know soon enough whether these initial impressions, encouraging as they seem, are borne out in practice. For the time being, however, they’ve added fuel to a narrative some pundits have been pushing since the Democratic primaries ended last spring: that Biden is positioned to become a transformative president in the mold of FDR or Lyndon B. Johnson (the latter being, like Biden, an especially unlikely figure to assume such a role).

For what it’s worth, there remain plenty of good reasons for skepticism: FDR and Johnson both presided over permanent structural shifts in national policy and state institutions, whereas Biden’s stimulus bill — even if it were to pass in its present form — contains nothing of comparable weight or permanence. In other areas, notably health care reform, there is little evidence his administration is planning a meaningful break with the status quo — notwithstanding what’s officially listed on his campaign website.

We don’t, of course, know what the future will hold. But a look back at the media consensus that prevailed around this time during the very first months of the previous Democratic administration underscores the danger of making bold predictions of a new dawning era of liberalism.

The New Liberalism That Wasn’t

No two political moments are identical, and there are many important differences between the period surrounding Barack Obama’s January 2009 inauguration and the present. Nonetheless, there are also plenty of obvious similarities: the presence of a major national crisis, the departure of a deeply unpopular Republican president, a historic surge in general election turnout resulting in a Democratic presidential victory (to name just a few).

Biden, like Obama, enters office courtesy of an ideologically diverse voter coalition — one that includes both young progressives and affluent suburban conservatives. Biden, like Obama, has also sent decidedly mixed signals about how he actually intends to govern: formally embracing some priorities held by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party while also quite vocally courting Republicans and championing bipartisan compromise.

Though a similar ambiguity prevailed twelve years ago, there seemed to be widespread agreement in 2008–9, spanning from center left to center right, that a new liberalism had arrived and that a progressive ideological consensus was in the making. Some, like former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, felt confident enough to announce it even before the ballots had been cast. “Whoever is elected Tuesday, his freedom in office will be limited,” Noonan reassured readers in the Wall Street Journal less than a week before the 2008 presidential election. “But let’s be frank. Something new is happening in America. It is the imminent arrival of a new liberal moment. History happens, it makes its turns, you hold on for dear life. Life moves.”

The Journal itself was far less sanguine about the ramifications of an Obama victory, publishing an ominously worded editorial about the dangers of unified Democratic control of the federal government. “Though we doubt most Americans realize it,” the editorial read, “this would be one of the most profound political and ideological shifts in US history.” It continued:

Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven’t since 1965, or 1933 [my emphasis]. In other words, the election would mark the restoration of the activist government that fell out of public favor in the 1970s. If the U.S. really is entering a period of unchecked left-wing ascendancy, Americans at least ought to understand what they will be getting, especially with the media cheering it all on.

What would they be getting after Obama’s all-but-inevitable victory? According to the Journal’s editorial board, a new policy consensus defined, among other things, by institutional animus toward business, newly empowered trade unions, a green revolution, DC statehood, and the ineluctable march toward fully socialized medicine. “Mr. Obama wants to build a public insurance program, modeled after Medicare and open to everyone of any income,” it warned. “Single payer is the inevitable next step.”

The same general impression of what an Obama presidency signified continued to prevail in conservative precincts into the administration’s early months. “Those of us who consider ourselves moderates, moderate-conservative, in my case, are forced to confront the reality that Barack Obama is not who we thought he was,” David Brooks would lament in a March 2, 2009 op-ed for the New York Times. “His words are responsible; his character is inspiring. But his actions betray a transformational liberalism that should put every centrist on notice.” Animating Brooks’s alarm was a piece by Clive Crook in the Financial Times which had written favorably of Obama’s budget legislation — legislation which, as Crook then wrote:

…contains no trace of compromise. It makes no gesture, however small, however costless to its larger agenda, of a bipartisan approach to the great questions it addresses. It is a liberal’s dream of a new New Deal.

This also proved to be the general consensus among influential liberal voices — even those, like Paul Krugman, who had previously been critical of Obama. “Will the election mark a turning point in the actual substance of policy? Can Barack Obama really usher in a new era of progressive policies?” Krugman wrote a few days after Obama’s landslide victory. “Yes, he can… Anyone who doubts that we’ve had a major political realignment should look at what’s happened to Congress.” A few days later, the columnist seemed to have grown even more buoyant, opening a piece titled “Franklin Delano Obama?” with the words “Suddenly, everything old is New Deal again. Reagan is out; FDR is in.”

As the Times’ Edward Rothstein observed, FDR comparisons were all the rage during the Obama transition, arguing in a December 2008 piece that the scale of the incoming president’s crisis-inspired ambitions appeared to echo those of the New Deal era:

Since Mr. Obama’s election, references to Roosevelt have become even more plentiful. Caricatures of the president-elect with a cigarette holder and an insouciant Roosevelt grin have appeared in major publications. Mr. Obama has implicitly invoked Roosevelt’s approach to what was the worst financial crisis of the 20th century, saying he would enact the largest public-works program since the building of the federal highway system in the 1950s. And he has made clear (conceptually echoing Roosevelt) that his attention to the welfare of the citizenry would be inseparable from his attention to the health of the economy.

Channeling this zeitgeist, the November 2008 cover of Time Magazine would depict Obama in FDR-inspired caricature, the president-elect appearing with Roosevelt’s trademark eyeglasses while smoking a cigarette against a black-and-white backdrop accompanied by the words “A New New Deal” (a June 2020 issue of Newsweek, incidentally, featured a cover showing Biden alongside FDR).

The most intellectually fleshed-out and well-articulated argument that a new political consensus had dawned was probably found in a November 9, 2008 New Yorker essay by George Packer appropriately titled “The New Liberalism.” While eschewing some of the triumphalism found elsewhere and accounting for various possibilities — “Reagan couldn’t cancel Roosevelt’s legacy; Obama won’t be able to obliterate Reagan’s” — Packer was nonetheless bullish about what the election would herald for liberalism and the forthcoming return of activist government:

Barack Obama’s decisive defeat of John McCain is the most important victory of a Democratic candidate since 1932. It brings to a close another conservative era, one that rose amid the ashes of the New Deal coalition in the late sixties, consolidated its power with the election of Ronald Reagan, in 1980, and immolated itself during the Presidency of George W. Bush…For the first time since the Johnson Administration, the idea that government should take bold action to create equal opportunity for all citizens doesn’t have to explain itself in a defensive mumble…By the end of the campaign, Obama wasn’t just running against broken politics, or even against the Bush Presidency. He had the anti-government philosophy of the entire Age of Reagan in his sights.

Whatever ultimately came next, Packer argued, there lay ahead a new era concerned with “public [rather than] private goods.” “The meal will be smaller, and have less interesting flavors,” he concluded, “but it will be shared more fairly.”

In fairness to Packer, it’s easy to be clairvoyant in hindsight. But to put it bluntly, very little about the media consensus at the time of Obama’s victory, and continuing for a while following his inauguration, was actually borne out in practice.

Most obviously, Republicans would recapture the House only two years later in what became the worst electoral defeat for Congressional Democrats in decades. Wealth inequality dramatically increased during the Obama presidency, with the average wealth of the bottom 99 percent dropping by $4,500 and the average wealth of the top 1 percent rising by $4.9 million between 2007 and 2016.

Far from bringing back vigorous activist government, the administration would forgo a large scale overhaul of the financial sector in favor of perfunctory leak-plugging that left the basic contours of Clinton era deregulation intact. Its signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, did expand Medicaid coverage for the poor and near-poor, but found its primary inspiration in market-based ideas originating from a conservative think tank rather than New Deal or Great Society liberalism.

Though buzz about an epoch-defining political realignment would take some time to dissipate, the administration’s overall direction of travel was made clear a few weeks after inauguration day. Alarmed by David Brooks’s March 2 op-ed (which had predicted a “transformational liberalism” and warned that the hallowed institution of political centrism was now under threat), senior figures in the Obama White House reached out to the columnist to offer reassurance. Brooks would devote his next column to summarizing this response.

“In the first place,” he would write, “they do not see themselves as a group of liberal crusaders. They see themselves as pragmatists who inherited a government and an economy that have been thrown out of whack. They’re not engaged in an ideological project to overturn the Reagan Revolution, a fight that was over long ago.” Despite his own dire predictions a few days earlier, the columnist, visibly more relaxed than in his previous op-ed, would go on to write:

The budget … isn’t some grand transformation of America… It raises taxes on the rich to a level slightly above where they were in the Clinton years and then uses the money as a down payment on health care reform… It’s not the Russian Revolution. Second [the Obama White House contends], the administration will not usher in an era of big government … they aim to bring spending down to 22 percent of GDP in a few years… Third, they say, Republicans should welcome the budget’s health care ideas. The Medicare reform represents a big cut in entitlement spending. It amounts to means-testing the system. It introduces more competition and cuts corporate welfare. These are all Republican ideas… [The president] is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.

Furthermore, Brooks continued, “the Obama folks feel they spend as much time resisting liberal ideas as enacting them.”

So far, on the issue of deficits at least, Joe Biden’s rhetoric has diverged from the fiscal hawkishness Obama’s team promised Brooks nearly twelve years ago. But a look back at the narratives that prevailed in the wake of the last Democratic presidential election victory nonetheless underscores the danger of making bold predictions about the return of activist governance or a political realignment-in-the-making.

In what became a wave election that handed Democrats unified control of the federal government, Barack Obama rode into office channeling liberal evangelism while simultaneously promising unity and bipartisan compromise. As Joe Biden follows in the former president’s footsteps, it’s difficult not to see the parallels between the present moment and its analogue in 2009. History, to paraphrase Mark Twain, may not be repeating itself, but it very well might be about to rhyme.