Barack Obama has acted with breathtaking speed on a wide range of issues at home and abroad, making a dramatic break from the past eight years. If he can sustain public support for his sweeping initiatives, he may join Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as one of the modern era's transformational presidents.
FDR used the Great Depression to usher in an expansive role for government and the provision of durable social programs. Reagan used double-digit inflation and the bitter after taste of the Iranian hostage crisis to implement conservative policies at home and a muscular attitude abroad. So, too, President Obama has used the Great Recession and the widespread discontent with Bush-era foreign policy to set the foundation for a modern, assertive role for government at home and to forge a new approach to foreign relations.
It is too early to determine the lasting impact of Obama's policies, which will depend in part on factors beyond his control, but it is not too soon to recount the dramatic changes the president has already made. He has ended the conservative era under which American politics had operated for 40 years since Richard Nixon. There were only two respites, both of which failed to overcome the conservative momentum: Jimmy Carter's major domestic achievements were conservative—the deregulation of transportation and energy prices—while Bill Clinton was stymied by conservative Congresses and focused on budget discipline and overhauling welfare.
Obama has the charisma, discipline, and Democratic Congress necessary to start a new progressive era. As an opening volley, his stimulus package turned conservative philosophy on its head. Instead of tax cuts for the wealthy and reductions in social programs, he cut taxes for the middle class, increased them for the rich, and focused funds on those hit hard by the economic crisis. He also increased funding for alternative energy, energy efficiency, and education to build the foundation for long-term economic prosperity and proposed sweeping healthcare and immigration reform. And he ended laissez-faire Wall Street regulation, increasing oversight of all financial institutions and of derivatives. He made a clean break from Bush environmental policies. And all of this occurred on top of a sharp departure from Bush social policies in the areas of federal funding for stem cell research and foreign aid for programs that offer family planning services.
Abroad, the changes are as sweeping. Neo-conservatism has given way to realism, confrontational unilateralism to reinvigorated multilateralism. This new approach is most evident in the recalibration of the war on terror, which will now be fought consistent with America's values and international standards. Guantánamo will be closed; most detainees will have the right of habeas corpus; suspect interrogation methods have been banned; and the CIA's foreign rendition facilities have been closed. And instead of Baghdad, the war's emphasis is where it should have always been: the lawless border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the epicenter of global terrorism. Troops will be drawn down in Iraq and increased in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan "surge" will be supplemented by more training for the Pakistani and Afghan armies and police, pressing Pakistan to concentrate on controlling its own territory against a surging Taliban, and providing economic development in both countries to create jobs and hope.
Other foreign policy changes are clear. Iran will be engaged directly with a mix of stronger incentives and sanctions, and likely without preconditions to negotiations to stop their nuclear program. The third rail of Latin American politics was partially breached by expanding travel and remittances by Cuban-Americas to Cuba. The administration has begun, as Vice President Biden said, to "reset" the relationship with Russia. And former Sen. George Mitchell's appointment as Middle East envoy signals a more engaged role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Corrected on : Stuart E. Eizenstat served in the Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter White Houses and in the Bill Clinton administration. He is a partner in the law firm Covington & Burling.