A year before his first inauguration, Barack Obama laid out the objective of his presidency: to renew faith and trust in -activist government and transform the country. In an hourlong interview with the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal on January 16, 2008, Obama said that his campaign was already “shifting the political paradigm” and promised that his presidency would do the same. His model would be Ronald Reagan, who “put us on a fundamentally different path,” in a way that distinguished him from leaders who were content merely to occupy the office. “I think that Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not. And in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
If Reagan sought to minimize the role of government in the lives of Americans, Obama set out to do the opposite. “We’ve had a federal government that I think has gotten worn down and ineffective over the course of the Bush administration, partly because philosophically this administration did not believe in government as an agent of change,” he complained.
“I want to make government cool again,” he said.
Obama believed in government, and he was confident that his election would signal that the American people were ready to believe again, too.
As we approach the sixth anniversary of his election, the Obama presidency is in tatters. Obama’s policies, foreign and domestic, are widely seen as failed or failing. His approval rating is near its lowest point. Obama’s base of support is loyal and fierce and shrinking. Much of the country sees him as incompetent or untrustworthy, and government, far from being “cool,” is a joke on good days and a threat on bad ones.
Barack Obama came to office with hugely ambitious goals for transforming the country, changing its trajectory, and putting America on a fundamentally different path. He advertised his audacity and boasted of his boldness. He told audiences he was compelled to run for president by what Martin Luther King Jr. had called “the fierce urgency of now.” He launched his campaign in Springfield, Illinois, and invited flattering comparisons to that other president from Springfield, Abraham Lincoln.
Obama sought to portray himself as a new kind of politician—a “post-partisan,” pragmatic problem-solver, not so much a centrist as someone who couldn’t be pinpointed on the left-right ideological spectrum because he floated above it. Traditional labels were anachronistic constructs that didn’t apply to such a transcendent political figure.
Journalists not only swallowed this legend, many of them promoted it. Obama didn’t appear ideological to influential political reporters because they shared his views. He wasn’t liberal, he was right.
And yet Obama didn’t attempt to conceal his embrace of big government. In nearly every stump speech, he touted government as the answer to virtually every problem facing the country.
The economic crisis that shook the nation shortly before his election gave him an early opportunity to use government as an agent of change. A stunned populace that had long been skeptical of the ever-growing state was suddenly open to the kind of overachieving government that Obama had been promising. His inauguration had even some conservatives wondering if man and moment had come together in such a singular way that a slide from American welfare state to European-style socialism was inevitable.
Obama’s first Inaugural Address—equal parts inspiration, confidence, and grandiosity—sought to take advantage of and shape this national mood. Looking out at the nearly two million people who had come to Washington for the ceremony, Obama proclaimed: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin the work of remaking America.”
The words that make it into an Inaugural Address are those that survive dozens and dozens of drafts. They do not appear by accident. For Obama, the project of his presidency was one of remaking the country—not improving it, not recovering historical greatness, not restoring past glory, but remaking America.
On his first day in office, Obama issued executive orders on transparency and ethics—to “ensure the public trust” and, importantly, to “restore faith in government, without which we cannot deliver the changes that we were sent here to make.”
The change came quickly. And it came big. With Democrats in control of both House and Senate, Obama shortly signed into law an “economic stimulus” package that would cost nearly $1 trillion and would, in the administration’s telling, keep unemployment under 8 percent and prompt a robust economic recovery.