The history of American presidents is monumental, with each administration offering several stories that many find fascinating. Yet, for all the presidents our nation has seen, only a few are what historians consider "transitional."
We know these presidents by their names that we recognize from textbooks we were forced to memorize in our earlier years, but also for the great command they took to the office of the president. These names we do not forget easily: Thomas Jefferson; Andrew Jackson; Abraham Lincoln; Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt; and even Ronald Reagan. These men are considered our nation's greatest leaders, and are followed by historians for what they've done with the office in their hands. What's less studied, however, is how these men came to power and why we consider them to be transitional in the first place.
There is two parts to this equation, and the first is an obvious answer: these presidents simply transformed our country in drastic ways, bringing forth new ideas and ideologies that lasted for years after they left office. What's often overlooked, however, is that these leaders didn't just pop out of nowhere; they generally followed other presidents that historians typically considered great failures, where public opinion had soured and a new idea was welcomed as a repudiation of the previous president's ideas (which were themselves once a repudiation of another "failed" president).
These "repudiators" set the tone for the presidents after them, until the people saw in their ideologies a flaw or a reason to amend the ideas and beliefs of what the government's role ought to be. Lincoln, for example, was a repudiation of the idea of states' rights above the federal government's, a belief in a solid union where the federal government's laws trumped those of the lower governments'. Teddy Roosevelt was a repudiation of allowing trusts and other free-market practices to go forth without regard for the plight of America's working class. And, if Franklin Roosevelt's repudiation symbolized Americans' desires for help from the government, for permission of that government to become more involved in the lives of its citizens, then Ronald Reagan's repudiation symbolized a belief that Americans shouldn't come to depend upon that welfare state, that abuse and waste in the system should end and the government should back out of its role as a provider to the people.
But now we have a president today who is a clear repudiation to what Reagan stood for. Barack Obama has changed the health care system drastically, allowing for more Americans to receive assistance than ever before. Yet, he has done so in a way that isn't definitionally socialist (despite what many on the right have to say), that focuses reforms on cutting wasteful spending, increasing taxes modestly on the wealthy, and requiring that, if Americans are to receive assistance from the government, they should expect to pay for part of it themselves as well. The program, after all, utilizes private companies, subsidizing the costs for working Americans in a private system.
Obama and Democrats also spent large sums of money hoping to invigorate the economy, a tactic that most economists agree has been largely successful. Again, we see a large government expenditure being used in order to create positive outcomes in the free market.
His latest push, the "re-regulation" of Wall Street and big banks, follows that pattern: his goal is to ensure another economic meltdown doesn't occur. Obama will do this through stricter regulations than what was proposed under the Reagan regime of presidents over the past thirty years.
The conclusion that we can draw from this is that the Obama presidency is a direct repudiation of Reaganomics, the idea that allowing unrestricted big business to carry out its goals without oversight would trickle the benefits down to the working class. In reality, what we've seen is very little evidence of this working out. If anything, what we've seen is if things do go good, the wealthy usually hang onto their profits as much as possible, and any positive outcome for the working class is minimal, if any (perhaps a meager gain in their 401K).
But when things go wrong, its the middle and working classes that feel the burden, who are expected to take the brunt of the negative outcomes, because, hey, that's capitalism, baby.
The voters rejected that framework in 2008 when they selected Obama over John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate who offered the same vision of Reagan and George W. Bush. The voters willingly selected a president whose clear plans called for a drastic expansion of government involvement in assisting their lives.
The Obama presidency (and likely the presidencies that follow) will be symbolic of a change in how we want our economy to run. The people will not accept a return to Reaganomics, but instead will endorse a regulated economy, emphasizing the positive aspects of capitalism while trying to restrict or minimize the negative practices that got us into the mess we're in today.
His is a presidency that will seek to return the market to its glory days, but not at the expense of working Americans. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive, as some in the GOP might posit.
Obama is clearly a repudiator president,one whose name will someday join those of others in the textbooks of children across the country.