Obama's Quiet Dismantling of Reaganism

Late in his second term, the president starts to tear down Reagan's legacy.

By Nathan Pippenger

Noam Scheiber’s overview of recent developments in labor protections—from new overtime rules announced by the White House, to favorable court rulings extending minimum wage protections, to an important NLRB decision on collective bargaining—takes a long view, detecting the consolidation of an important legacy: “In one sense,” Scheiber notes, “Mr. Obama foreshadowed these efforts as a candidate in 2008, when he famously suggested that, if elected, he would aim to be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan.”

This is a canny reading of Obama’s promise, which was interpreted at the time through the frame of campaign politics—a dismissive reference to the Clintons as incapable of delivering the kind of fundamental change his own presidency would bring. The high expectations set by such promises were bound to lead to occasional disappointments, and in certain ways, Obama hasn’t heralded the deep changes associated with the Reagan era. For one thing, he hasn’t quite managed to displace the default position of rhetorical skepticism towards government, which seems to be the starting point for every public policy debate.

There is, however, a more concrete approach that lies within the president’s power. In this respect, Scheiber is right to connect Obama’s emerging labor legacy with his promise to enact Reaganesque change. When studying the history of the Reagan administration—not its speeches, not its image, but its inner workings—one is struck repeatedly by the single-minded ambition of its staffers. The crusade of young John Roberts to fundamentally change the Justice Department’s approach to voting rights, over the objections of career staffers, is just one example. The people who staffed the Reagan administration evinced a long-term vision and sheer determination that’s impressive even to detractors. To some extent, the Obama White House understood this principle too, at least when it came to legislation: the stimulus, health care, Dodd-Frank. But it was much slower to show a similar kind of transformative ambition when it came to the behind-the-scenes work of governing, like agency appointments and federal court nominations. For years, the Obama White House approached these crucial tasks, which have consequences far after the president has left office, with appalling slowness.

That mindset seems finally to have changed, and the fortunes of Obama’s legacy with it. The NLRB provides a perfect illustration. When Congress created the NLRB in the 1930s, it attempted to draw members from neutral backgrounds in order to avoid narrowly-partisan rulings. This practice began to break down in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower, in a controversial departure from precedent, decided to appoint pro-management NLRB board members. The NLRB’s shift towards a more bluntly partisan composition, however, was only completed in the 1980s—when Reagan vastly stepped up what Eisenhower had begun. As MIT economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin explained in 2007, “Reagan broke with tradition and appointed a management consultant who specialized in defeating unions to be the chairman of the NLRB.” The rest is history.

It was fitting, then, that just last week, Obama’s NLRB appointees issued a ruling that will open the door for unions to represent workers at companies relying heavily on franchises, like fast-food chains. The NLRB held, in a 3-2 decision, that corporations like McDonald’s are “joint employers” of the employees at their franchises—reversing a Reagan-era NLRB decision. Changes like this are quieter than the dramatic announcements which we usually associate with a political sea change—this was no “government is the problem”-style moment. But as John Roberts’s long effort to change voting rights law shows—and as Obama, in his waning months, seems to fully appreciate—an administration’s quieter, less-dramatic campaigns can be transformative too.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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