President Bill Clinton’s strategy of triangulation was essentially an effort to lift pieces of Reaganism for Democratic gains. “The era of big government is over,” he famously declared in his 1996 State of the Union address.
Deeply aware of the role Mr. Reagan played in shifting American views on spending, President Barack Obama took office in 2009 believing that his administration could help end the country’s adherence to conservative economic policy.
“Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Mr. Obama said during his 2008 campaign. “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the ’60s and the ’70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating.”
Yet Mr. Obama also struggled to escape that path, eventually moderating his agenda and spending months making fruitless efforts to get bipartisan support for his ideas. Even the health care law that would come to be named after him was a compromise between liberals, who wanted a single-payer system, and moderates, who feared the size of such a huge new program.
There’s some evidence that Mr. Biden may be able to accomplish what Mr. Obama could not. Since the start of the pandemic, polling has found Americans expressing more positive sentiments about their government over all. Nearly two-thirds of Americans supported Mr. Biden’s relief bill, with similar numbers backing his infrastructure plans. The most recent NBC News polling found that 55 percent of Americans said government should do more, compared with 47 percent who said the same a dozen years ago.
Unlike in 2009, when the government response to the Great Recession helped ignite the Tea Party movement, there’s been no backlash so far to the big spending in Washington. After Congress passed the $1.9 trillion relief bill, many Republican voters told me that they were supportive of the legislation. Republicans in Washington have struggled to find a cohesive line of attack against the policy. And some who voted against the bill now highlight its benefits, an implicit acknowledgment of public support.
Former President Donald Trump, too, helped hasten the death of limited government, undercutting Republican credibility for making the case against federal spending. He drove the national debt to the highest level since World War II, pushing through a $2 trillion tax cut that did little for middle-class families.