What can be said, at this midterm point, of the Obama administration’s place in the larger context of American political history?
The first thing to note is how much of it is familiar. Like his predecessors, Obama is subject to the constraints of Congress, the parties, and public opinion. He has been hobbled by his administration’s limited experience and competence. And he has fallen prey to the unexpected events and unintended consequences that plague every presidency. His 2010 shellacking is slightly less than what hit Roosevelt in 1938 (R+71). But it is more than what hit Hoover in 1930 (D+52), Truman in 1946 (R+55), Eisenhower in 1958 (D+47), Johnson in 1966 (R+47), Nixon in 1974 (D+43), or Clinton in 1994 (R+54).
The difference: Of the presidents listed above, only Hoover and Clinton were just two years out from their initial elections. It may be said that compared with them, Obama has racked up an impressive legislative record. The stimulus, Obamacare, and financial reform are substantial achievements, whatever the ultimate judgment on their desirability may be. But they do not add up to a program like the New Deal or the Great Society. Nor is there any sign that Obama is putting together a new political coalition with staying power, as FDR and Reagan did.