The Age

By Tom Switzer

Barack Obama still occupies the White House for another 18 months, but already he can claim to be a consequential president. Broadly speaking, he has moved the political centre in the United States to the left, much as Ronald Reagan shifted it to the right three decades ago.

When Obama set out his transformational agenda in February 2009, leading conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called it "the boldest social democratic manifesto ever issued by a US president". Obama delivered.

During his first term, Obama restructured the financial sector and other industries, passed a near $US1 trillion stimulus (the largest spending bill in US history), bailed out the automobile industry, enacted the first income tax increase in nearly two decades, regulated coal-fired power plants to limit carbon emissions and implemented a national health-care program that reaffirms the widely held western belief that healthcare is a right, not a privilege.

Add to this the recent US Supreme Court decisions to uphold his healthcare law and legalise same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and it is clear Obama has not just got his mojo back — he has helped make the US a more progressive environment.

True, he has met legislative resistance and suffered setbacks; so much so his Republican opponents regained both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections, respectively.

It is also true many liberals themselves have slammed Obama for not being liberal enough. After all, he has failed to close the Guantanamo detention camp and pass an emissions trading scheme. He recently joined forces with those "ideological" and "polarising" Republicans to promote free-trade policies in Asia and Europe. He has also escalated the use of drones to assassinate terror suspects, which leaves hardly any room for due process.

Guns remain a blight for the US to combat. Not surprisingly, Obama says the failure to pass gun-control legislation is the most stinging defeat of his presidency. 

But all things considered, and whatever one thinks of his politics, it is difficult to dispute the notion that, during Obama's tenure, liberalism is on the ascendancy and conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of many issues.

Nothing proves the point better than gay marriage. In 2004, polls showed roughly 60 per cent opposition and 30 per cent support for legalisation — and the issue enabled the Republicans to galvanise the "religious right" to help secure George W. Bush's re-election. Today, the numbers have reversed: nearly 60 per cent support and 35 per cent opposition — and the issue could hurt a Republican presidential candidate next year.

In 2008, Obama opposed same-sex marriage. In 2012, with a wet finger to the wind, he flipped, declaring in his second inaugural address in 2013: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well." Meanwhile, in Australia Julia Gillard remains to the right of Dick Cheney on gay marriage.  

The recent murder of nine black worshippers at a church in South Carolina, taken together with the recent spate of unjustified police attacks on African-Americans in US cities, has led Obama himself to lament that the long shadow of slavery and discrimination "exists in almost every institution of our lives".

But although racism exists, institutional racism is a thing of the past. Witness the rapid response of law-enforcement officials, the universal condemnation of the crime, the widespread outpouring of grief and the calls for redemption captured by Obama's stirring Amazing Grace eulogy. Meanwhile, the South Carolina Republican governor, a daughter of immigrants from India, and the south's only black senator, also a conservative Republican, led calls for the Confederate flag's removal from the state's Capitol grounds. Surely a sign of progress.

Demographic trends reinforce the United States' liberal trajectory. Whereas Republicans predominantly represent middle-aged and older whites, Democrats are increasingly making bigger inroads among Hispanics (a rapidly rising minority) and African Americans, as well as younger voters, who are consistently well to the left of their elders (abortion rights, drug reform, same-sex marriage, less interventionist foreign policy).

As the minority populations increase, the share of the white vote will continue to decline in future presidential elections. This is especially the case as long as Republican buffoons such as Donald Trump demonise illegal immigrants from south of the border.

Obama always aimed to be a consequential president. When he ran against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, he praised Ronald Reagan as a "transformational president" in a way Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were not. Reagan, Obama said, "changed the trajectory of America" and "put [the US] on a fundamentally different path."

By defining a new political centre and mobilising support for it, Obama has helped transform the political zeitgeist. In so doing, he has emerged as a consequential leader.

This article was originally published in The Age