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Obama and the Road Ahead: The Rolling Stone Interview

In an Oval Office conversation with a leading historian, the president discusses what he would do with a second term – and his opponent's embrace of 'the most extreme positions in the Republican Party'

November 8, 2012 3:25 PM ET
barack obama cover 1169
President Barack Obama on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

We arrived at the Oval Office for our 45-minute interview with President Obama on the morning of October 11th. After our conversation ended, the president would board Air Force One for Florida, where he was slated to hold a rally at the University of Miami before watching Vice President Joe Biden debate Rep. Paul Ryan. But now, before the tape recorders were turned on, the president and I chatted for a minute about "The Bronco Buster," the Frederic Remington sculpture next to his desk that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt. Then, as the small talk began to eat up too much time, Obama took charge. "All right," he said briskly. "Let's fire up."

Photos: President Barack Obama

Barack Obama can no longer preach the bright 2008 certitudes of "Hope and Change." He has a record to defend this time around. And, considering the lousy hand he was dealt by George W. Bush and an obstructionist Congress, his record of achievement, from universal health care to equal pay for women, is astonishingly solid. His excessive caution is a survival trait; at a time when the ripple and fury provoked by one off-key quip can derail a campaign for days, self-editing is the price a virtuoso must pay to go the distance in the age of YouTube.

Viewed through the lens of history, Obama represents a new type of 21st-century politician: the Progressive Firewall. Obama, simply put, is the curator-in-chief of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. When he talks about continued subsidies for Big Bird or contraceptives for Sandra Fluke, he is the inheritor of the Progressive movement's agenda, the last line of defense that prevents America's hard-won social contract from being defunded into oblivion.

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt used executive orders to save the Grand Canyon from the zinc-copper lobbies and declared that unsanitary factories were grotesque perversions propagated by Big Money interests, the federal government has aimed to improve the daily lives of average Americans. Woodrow Wilson followed up T.R.'s acts by creating the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission and re-establishing a federal income tax. Then, before the stock market crash in 1929, the GOP Big Three of Harding-Coolidge-Hoover made "business" the business of America, once more allowing profiteers to flourish at the expense of the vulnerable.

Enter Franklin Roosevelt, a polio victim confined to a wheelchair and leg braces. His alphabet soup of New Deal programs – the CCC and TVA and WPA – brought hope to the financially distraught, making them believe that the government was on their side. Determined to end the Great Depression, Roosevelt was a magnificent experimenter. Credit him with Social Security, legislation to protect workers, labor's right to collective bargaining, Wall Street regulation, rural electrification projects, farm-price supports, unemployment compensation and federally guaranteed bank deposits. The America we know and love today sprung directly from the New Deal.

For the next three decades, the vast majority of voters benefited from Roosevelt's revolution. And every president from FDR to Jimmy Carter, regardless of political affiliation, grabbed America by the scruff of the neck and did huge, imaginative things with tax revenues. Think Truman (the Marshall Plan), Eisenhower (the Interstate Highway System), Kennedy (the space program), Johnson (Medicaid and Medicare), Nixon (the EPA) and Carter (the departments of Energy and Education). Whether it was Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy going after the Mob or LBJ laying the groundwork for PBS, citizens took comfort in the knowledge that the executive branch was a caring iron fist with watchdog instincts that got things done.

It was the election of Ronald Reagan that started the Grand Reversal. Reagan had voted four times for FDR, but by 1980 he saw the federal government – with the notable exception of our armed forces – as a bloated, black-hatted villain straight out of one of his B movies. His revolution – and make no mistake that it was one – aimed to undo everything from Medicare to Roe v. Wade. Ever since Reagan, both the New Deal and the Great Society have been under continuous siege by the American right. Bill Clinton survived two terms only by co-opting traditional GOP issues like welfare reform and balanced budgets. Unlike Clinton, Obama must hold tighter to the Progressive movement's reins. There are no more moderate Republicans left in Congress to do business with; today's GOP conservatives want to roll back, not reform. Having brought Obamacare this far, the president must find a way to close the deal in his second term.

Paul Nitze, the foreign-policy guru of the Truman administration, once told me that the problem with historians like myself is that we're always hunting for a cache of documents to analyze. What our ilk tends to forget, he chided, is that inaction is also policy. Under this criterion, Obama must also be judged by the things he won't allow to happen on his watch: Wall Street thieving, Bush-style fiscal irresponsibility, a new war in the Middle East, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the dismantling of Medicare into a voucher program – the list is long. The offense-driven, Yes-We-Can candidate of 2008 has become the No-You-Won't defensive champion of 2012. Obama has less a grand plan to get America working than a NO TRESPASSING sign to prevent 100 years of progressive accomplishments from being swept away, courtesy of Team Romney, in a Katrina-like deluge of anti-regulatory measures.

No wonder the right has such a gleam of hatred for Obama – he is the roadblock to their revolution. The conservative movement, however, has a crippling problem: If they can't beat Obama with a 7.8 percent unemployment rate, then how can they hope to derail Hillary Clinton in 2016 when presumably that number will be substantially lower?

If Obama wins re-election, his domestic agenda will be anchored around a guarantee to all Americans that civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, affordable health care, public education, clean air and water, and a woman's right to choose will be protected, no matter how poorly the economy performs. Obama has grappled with two of the last puzzle pieces of the Progressive agenda – health care and gay rights – with success. If he is re-elected in November and makes his health care program permanent, it will take root in the history books as a seminal achievement. If he loses, Romney and Ryan will crush his initiatives without remorse.

The main goal of Obama's second term, besides driving down unemployment, will likely be the conversion to clean energy. While Obama doesn't wear an Inconvenient Truth T-shirt, he nevertheless understands that environmentalism makes for good business in the 21st century. The high seas and savage winds of fossil-fuel abuse are upon us. Obama has made clear that addressing climate change is the issue of most long-term consequence facing not only America but human civilization itself. "I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy," he declared in his State of the Union address this year. "I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here. We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That's long enough." When Obama was prepping in Nevada for his first debate with Mitt Romney, he took a break to tour the Hoover Dam. Critics scoffed at the trip, but a second-term Obama presidency seems poised to build a clean-energy grid in the same infrastructure-driven vein as the New Deal's dams and road projects. Why not take advantage of proximity to learn about how thousands of workers were paid to build the towering dam, which continues to protect the Southwest from flood damage and irrigate thousands of acres of farmland, all while providing low-cost power to California, Arizona and Nevada?

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