Ronald Reagan had it. Bill Clinton did not. George W. Bush certainly lacked it. And, though it’s too early to know for sure, Barack Obama seems to have a coat of teflon rivaling that of Reagan, the original ‘teflon President.’
Teflon, of course, is that substance that used to coat pans to prevent things from sticking. Reagan, it seems, could make gaffe after gaffe and do all sorts of controversial things without having it ‘stick’ — he remained popular and effective. Politico’s Jon Martin wrote a piece yesterday “Obama Skates while the Right Fumes,” noting that Obama is ‘getting away with’ actions that Bill Clinton would have been skewered for. Easing restrictions on Cuba, long extremely controversial, seemed a minor story. Gay families at the Easter Egg hunt, shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, listening to an anti-American diatribe from Daniel Ortega, seeming to bow before the Saudi King, or admitting past US “arrogance” before a French audience would seem to be a red meat feast for the right wing. Yet while all this causes rage among the right wing talk shows and certain parts of the blogosphere, it hasn’t extended beyond those audiences — people who dislike Obama anyway. One can imagine a Jedi Reagan looking down “the force is strong in this one.”
There are lots of explanations for this phenomenon. Perhaps Obama is still in his honeymoon phase with the American people (though that didn’t help Clinton), or maybe the economic problems are so prevalent that people really aren’t focused on sidelight issues like who the President shakes hands with. None of these issues are substantive, they are all at best symbolic. When the country is risking depression, people don’t fixate on symbols or worry about gay families at Easter egg hunts.
I think the answer is more profound. Larry Sabato, a very highly regarded political scientist, has proclaimed the 2008 election a “re-aligning” election, the first since 1980. The previous re-alignment was in1932. Franklin Roosevelt enjoys teflon to this day, and was even cited by Reagan as one of his personal heros. I believe that the country has shifted politically and culturally in recent years, and the result is a different perspective on issues than one would have had in the past. Obama is “getting away” with this all because most of the public is fine with what he’s doing.
Most Americans are convinced that President Bush was far too arrogant in foreign policy. People elected Obama in part because he represented a change away from an arrogance now associated with the least popular politician in the US (Dick Cheney) and issues like torture. Attitudes towards homosexuality have undergone a cultural sea change. 20 years ago it was radical to promote civil unions. Now states are moving towards gay marriage, with the youth having a fundamentally different mindset on the issue than the generation before.
In fact, the Cold War mentality that still defines much of the right, especially those who call themselves ‘movement conservatives,’ is anachronistic. Calling people “communist” or “socialist” doesn’t have near the same impact it had thirty years ago. Decrying Obama’s economic policies — and there is much to be critical about, to be sure — is more difficult when it appears to most people that Republican free market policies led to the meltdown in the first place.
Bluntly: Republican policies have been judged as failures by the American public, and thus GOP criticism is not seen as credible. That, combined with the cultural changes of recent years mean this is a new political world, much different than the America of just a decade ago. Just as liberals had a hard time accepting the changes Reagan brought in 1980, many conservatives are flabbergasted by the transformation taking place now.
Before 1980 it was cool to be liberal, conservatives were made fun of (think Archie Bunker), and the US had an expanding social welfare system, much of it built under Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford. There was no real “Christian right” with any clout, and Nixon’s “detente” with the Soviets undercut fear of Communism. After Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, people even talked about a permanent Democratic majority, wondering if the Republican party could even survive. Then came a series of foreign policy setbacks, the hostage crisis in Iran, and an economy defined by high inflation and unemployment. Suddenly people wanted change.
The election of Ronald Reagan really brought forward cultural changes that had been brewing in the 70s. The 70s were perceived by many as being defined by an excessive ‘anything goes’ attitude. There already was a desire by many to return to earlier values. Ronald Reagan personified this shift, and by 1984 the term ‘liberal’ — eagerly embraced in the seventies — had become ‘the “l” word that Democrats avoided. The left early on could not believe things were changing so dramatically, and Reagan did suffer in early opinion polls due to the recession he inherited. But he recovered, and thus began the era of Republican dominance.
Bill Clinton was like Richard Nixon. Nixon had been considered very conservative, yet as President expanded social welfare programs, allowed Maoist China to take its seat on the UN Security Council, and was unable to challenge liberal dominance. Clinton was ostensibly liberal, but would cut social welfare programs, and fail to implement health care reform or other liberal agenda items. Neither 1968 nor 1992 were ‘realignment elections.’
Expect the next thirty years or so to be defined by a different ethic than the last three decades — realigning elections signal political and cultural change. The US probably will become more cooperative on the world stage. Culturally, the election of a man named Barack Hussein Obama shows that the public no longer fears difference in the way it used to. Gay marriage will expand, the Christian ‘right’ is already being written off by Republicans who do not see political strength in following their agenda.
Realignments are necessary; they reflect changes in society, usually breaking out during a period of crisis and uncertainty. As such, they can’t be guided by one individual or party. Obama’s election symbolizes real cultural change, but its form is yet to be determined.
Even the recession is unlikely to alter the course we’re on. Roosevelt managed to hang on through a long depression; if people believe that the choice is to give Obama more time or go back to the past, they’ll choose Obama. The teflon is real, and it transcends the man.