President Obama entered office in 2009 with the twin goals of expanding the role that government plays in the lives of individuals and businesses and proving to Americans that the government could be trusted to achieve big things. He was only half successful.
Through sweeping legislation and strong-armed use of executive power, Obama broadened the reach of government more than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Congress passed a national healthcare program, ramped up regulation of the financial sector, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure and alternative energy projects.
Rules issued by his administration now determine what type of health insurance everyone must have and how many miles per gallon their cars will need to average. Other rules, such as a far-reaching plan to curb carbon emissions, await legal challenges before formal implementation.
So Obama undoubtedly moved the ball down the field for liberalism, but the gulf between his promises and the reality of what was implemented dramatically hardened public skepticism about government. Under Obama, the nation found out that “shovel ready” stimulus projects weren’t shovel ready, and discovered that they were not allowed to keep the doctors and health insurance that they liked.
As the Obama epoch wanes, trust in government has reached historic lows. A Pew poll last fall found that just 19 percent of Americans said they could trust the government to do the right thing most of the time — a lower percentage than during Watergate, Vietnam or the Iraq War.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In his 2008 campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama differed little from Clinton on policy. But he offered himself as the more transformational figure who could advance the liberal agenda.
He presented himself as somebody with broad popular appeal, who had the ability to inspire and mobilize communities and who could use his rhetorical gifts to shake people out of decades of skepticism about government. He drew a revealing historical parallel.