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Use It or Lose It March 13, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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The meme of the week is that Obama is trying to do too much. Health care, stem-cell research, economic stimulus, financial system rescue, Afghanistan—too many issues to manage simultaneously.

William Galston agrees, writing in the New Republic:

The core issue is the clarity and self-discipline needed to maintain control of the agenda. Consider the judgment that Erwin C. Hargrove, a respected scholar of the presidency, rendered after Reagan’s first hundred days: “Reagan has demonstrated in a way that Jimmy Carter never did, that he understands how to be President. He knows that a President can deal with only a relatively small number of issues at a time.”

Galston goes on to also praise FDR for his focus and restraint early in his administration.

But I think Galston’s advice misses the mark. Building a lasting legacy of liberal reform requires that Obama get people to do lots of things, and nothing motivates like inspiration. Obama’s asset is his ability to inspire. He ought to make use of that wave of enthusiasm while it lasts because it won’t last forever. The “fierce urgency of now” is fleeting.

Galston’s reference to Reagan is appropriate but in a way Galston does not appreciate. Reagan’s rhetoric was virulently conservative but his actions and policies often were not. He increased the size of government, increased government spending, and increased taxes while negotiating with the USSR over the objections of most of his supporters. Although he enjoyed the support of religious conservatives, he seldom did much about their values agenda.

It has been widely noted that although Republicans have talked a good game when it comes to a radical right-wing agenda, they seldom deliver, especially when it comes to the so called “values issues”. (See Tom Franks, What’s the Matter with Kansas for a discussion.)

Perhaps that is because when Reagan had the opportunity—widespread support and a demoralized opposition—he failed to seize it, and Republicans have been playing catch-up on their values agenda ever since.

The idea that Obama is moving too fast is largely a complaint coming from the right. Although I admire Galston, as a political philosopher, for  his willingness to break with liberal orthodoxy, he sometimes gives too much credence to conservative talking points.

There is much wrong with this country and much of it is systematically related. It would be a shame to squander an opportunity to provide a systematic solution.

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