He has achieved most of his progressive agenda. So why is America so unhappy?

President Obama in the East Room of the White House on July 22.
President Obama in the East Room of the White House on July 22. PHOTO: ZUMA PRESS

President Obama said in 2008 that he wanted to be the reverse Ronald Reagan, and in one sense he has been. As he takes the Democratic stage in Philadelphia Wednesday he can rightly claim to have fulfilled most of his major progressive policy goals. The difference is the results. After eight years of Reagan, the Cold War was on the way to ending and the U.S. economy had grown by the size of Germany. Mr. Obama is leaving to his successor a world of spreading disorder and a country as economically anxious and more politically polarized than he inherited.

Even opponents of Mr. Obama’s agenda have to admit that he has achieved most of what he campaigned on. With a Democratic supermajority in 2009-2010, he passed the largest stimulus spending bill in decades, pushed through ObamaCare, nationalized the student-loan industry, and turned the banks into public utilities answerable first to government.

Democrats resisted him on cap and trade and union card check, but he has since achieved by executive fiat most of what he wanted on climate change and labor organizing. As theBush tax rates expired in 2013, he insisted on and won a huge tax increase. His one major unfulfilled ambition is immigration reform, but that hangs on who nominates the next Supreme Court Justice.

On foreign policy, he has also largely fulfilled his goal of reducing America’s global commitments. He has struck deals with adversaries and distanced the U.S. from allies. Perhaps most important, by refusing to reform entitlements he has narrowed the budget room for future military spending. He has put defense spending on a path to 3% of GDP, and falling, down from 4.6% when he took office. He has Europeanized the U.S. defense budget.

Democrats will cheer all of this, yet they might stop to ask themselves why, amid so much progressive success, the country is so frustrated and miserable. When Reagan left office the U.S. mood was buoyant and Americans celebrated immigration as a point of national pride. The political turmoil of the 1970s had vanished.
As Mr. Obama leaves office, the national mood is more sour than at anytime since the 1960s. The polls say some two-thirds of the voters think the country is on the “wrong track,” and a majority say they expect their children to do less well financially than they did. This reflects the historically slow economic recovery and incomes that have only recently begun to return to where they were when the recession ended.

Mr. Obama will claim he inherited a recession (he did) and saved the U.S. from depression (doubtful), but his policies have been in place for eight years. His appointees run the Federal Reserve. He is the one who chose to block tax reform and pile regulatory costs on nearly every part of the U.S. economy.

The resulting economic anxiety that sometimes becomes anger is bipartisan. Sanders and Trump voters represent the mirror image of frustration with slow growth and stagnant incomes, even if they prefer different villains. The Sanders crowd blames inequality, big business and foreign trade. The Trumpians blame big government and business, immigration and foreign trade. Neither vindicates the results of Obamanomics.

These frustrations also reflect an American politics that is increasingly divided by ideology, age, race, class and gender. This is in no small part the result of Mr. Obama’s governing strategy. When Democrats ran Congress with supermajorities, he settled for passing his agenda on partisan votes. He thus built no durable consensus for ObamaCare.

His strategy became even more partisan after Democrats lost Congress in 2010. Mr. Obama backed out of a budget deal with John Boehner in 2011 at the last minute because he wanted a bigger tax increase. To win re-election, he played the race card to mobilize minority voters and class warfare to demonize Mitt Romney. After his 2012 victory, he all but gave up working with Congress and has governed by regulatory decree, daring Republicans and the courts to stop him.

As for the world, U.S. retreat has produced the opposite of Reagan’s pax Americana. His premature departure from Iraq and abdication on Syria created a vacuum for Islamic State. A refugee crisis threatens Middle East stability and torments Europe with terror attacks on trains and family outings to view fireworks. Authoritarians in Iran, Russia and China are advancing to dominate their regions.

After Reagan, George H.W. Bush could cut defense spending and conduct a Cold War mopping up operation. After Mr. Obama, the next President will have to spend more on defense and rebuild U.S. credibility.

Mr. Obama won’t acknowledge it, but this is the reality that made it possible for Mr. Trump to give last week’s speech with its litany of U.S. decline. He couldn’t have done it if tens of millions of Americans didn’t believe it. Mr. Trump’s unique liabilities may still allow Hillary Clinton to win a third Obama term, but on all the evidence they won’t be happy about it.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/obamas-age-of-discord-1469486668

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