VIEWPOINT: How Obama Made Small Change Go Big

“Hope and change,” the ’08 Obama promised. It sounds like a bitter joke to many now. What change have we seen, they ask. What hope should we have?

Bunches of it. Though it may seem that Obama’s promise of change was obliterated by a combination of his own timidity or forces beyond his control, that pessimism looks a lot like myopia on closer inspection. In the long run, each election, each political victory, lays the groundwork for real change to the structure of American politics. Presidents, in particular, can set policy in ways that will reshape the contours of what’s possible for decades to come. This is the untold story of Obama’s first term: Obama’s seemingly small-bore policy initiatives end up paving the road for more sweeping progressive change down the line. The story of his second term, if he wins one, will be sticking the landing.

One of the common defenses of Obama’s record is that he did as much as he could. Though what we got wasn’t ideal, the argument goes, Obama was up against unstoppable forces: a filibuster-equipped intransigent opposition, an overly centrist Democratic Congress, and a breadth of well-funded corporate interests and lobbies. These forces, it’s said, determine the structure of American politics. They decide what the President can and can’t do — and in this case, Obama did nearly as much as they allowed.

There’s a lot of truth in this argument. But it’s by no means the whole truth. The happy history of the Obama administration is a series of often minor-seeming initiatives that double as gambits to reshape these so-called structural forces of American politics in ways that open up new possibilities for sweeping progressive change. His most prominent legislative reforms — health care and financial regulation — are quite famously designed with this goal in mind. Obamacare, through provisions like the cost control experiments and the Independent Advisory Board (IPAB), lays the groundwork for future pushes to revamp our still-unworkable health care system. Dodd-Frank is an attempt, albeit an incomplete one, to combat the economic and political threat posed by a giant, predatory financial sector.

However, the frequent reduction of the whole Obama policy legacy to those two laws misses the forest for two very tall trees. His policy legacy is sweeping, spanning a slate of changes that have the potential to shift the structural balance of forces in very real ways.

Take Obama’s work on climate change, oft cited as a source of disappointment among liberals. His record is undoubtedly a checkered record: Obama’s embrace of “clean coal” is gross posturing and his legislative pursuit of cap-and-trade when seemed at least possible was tepid at best. But look closely at what he used Presidential authority to do, and the picture improves considerably. The most important move in the long run, according to Obama critic Bill McKibben, has been the automobile fuel efficiency standards. It’s not just the fact that the rule reduces carbon pollution by 2 billion metric tons between now and 2030, though that helps. It’s that the rule realigns Detroit’s incentives, transforming the auto industry from a force against climate progress to an advocate for more earth-friendly policies.

As recently as 2011, Detroit was a fierce opponent of fuel efficiency standards. By this year, American automakers had pulled a complete 180. The reason is quite simple: high-mpg cars were “in all sectors…the key market driver” of the industry’s suddenly swelling profits. Obama’s policy brought what historically been a powerful, implacable opponent of fuel efficiency standards on board with climate-friendly approaches to both politics and their own products. One structural barrier to a saner climate policy removed, or at least mitigated.

Two other major climate policies functioned similarly. The EPA decision to label CO2 a pollutant resulted in serious executive action limiting power plant pollution, while stimulus funding for green energy helped the nascent industry flourish. These regulations created a market where renewable power could double in size, which, down the line, could help create a industry-funded pro-climate lobby to counter King Coal and other polluters.

These actions, with the exception of the stimulus (more on that in a bit), were done through the executive branch. This means two things. One is that significant policy improvements and challenges to the structural status quo can happen without the President having to wade through the obstructionist, filibuster-infested muck that is today’s Congress. The second is that Obama’s change is reversible: a President Romney would have the power to gut EPA carbon regulations and obstruct future fuel improvement standards. Control over the executive, on these climate issues, remains a key battlefield for remaking the stuff of American politics.

This pattern, smart short-run policy paired with long-term political vision, repeats throughout the Obama record. Department of Justice challenges to discriminatory voter ID laws not only protects equal access to the ballot box in 2012, but ensures that the critical constituency for long-term progressive change — minority voters — can vote for whomever they choose in perpetuity, as is their right. Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya not only stopped an impending massacre, but also enshrined a powerful framework for advancing human rights into international law and practice.

There will be more opportunities to push this kind of structural change in a second term, some we can’t possibly anticipate today. The stimulus is the ultimate example how a surprise crisis created – as Michael Grunwald’s book details, the stimulus created the framework for sweeping progressive change well into the future. As Grunwald puts it:

It included America’s biggest foray into industrial policy since FDR, the biggest expansion of anti-poverty initiatives since LBJ, the biggest middle-class tax cut since Ronald Reagan, and the biggest infusion of research money ever. It sent $8 billion into a new high-speed passenger rail network, the biggest new transportation initiative since the interstate highways, and another $7 billion to expand the country’s existing high-speed Internet network to underserved communities, a modern twist on the New Deal’s rural electrification…[The stimulus’] main legacy, like the New Deal’s, will be change.

We have no idea what crises a second-term President Obama will face, but there’s certain to be at least one. And while it likely won’t be at the scale of as the Great Recession, it too will contain opportunities for long-term progress.

Predicting the future is always risky. We have no way of knowing which, if any, of the Obama administration’s efforts to change the structure of American politics will pay off down the line. Some will likely fail, but others will almost certainly succeed. The Obama presidency, then, hasn’t been and won’t be a lesser evil. It’s a critical building block in constructing a political reality in which progressive politics can flourish.

And if that’s not a reason for hope, then what is?