Early in his presidency, Obama convened a meeting with a group of historians. The topic he put on the table was: What does it take to be a transformational president? Obama’s ambition to be such a figure could be seen in his first-term agenda, which included a major economic stimulus package, a bailout of the auto industry, a major financial regulatory reform package and, biggest of all, the law that is transforming the nation’s health-care industry.
But public skepticism about government put an extra burden on Obama, as it has on all activist Democratic politicians over the past three decades. To do what he wanted to do through government required building greater confidence in government. Long before the current controversies materialized, he had not been able to do that.
Defenders of his stimulus package say it prevented another depression and helped initiate a turnaround in the economy. But as the recovery sputtered and calls grew for additional stimulus, Obama did not have the political support to launch another round of government intervention because of criticisms that he had already added enormously to the deficit.
Most controversial has been his health-care initiative. Throughout the long battle to enact and then begin to implement the law, Obama’s White House has been unable to win broad public support for it, even though individual pieces are popular. Obama is still fighting to overcome distrust of government as he proceeds with the most complex change in social welfare policy since the 1960s.
Now the president is dealing with unexpected problems, each of which threatens to make the trust-in-government deficit even bigger.