When progressives consider the future, two basic storylines emerge. One can be summed up, roughly, as “Occupy changed everything”: With a new awareness of economic inequality, and a protest movement that managed to get some media attention where others had not, at last some anger has been targeted toward the plutocrats, rather than toward government; a new progressive agenda of redistributive tax policy, public investment rather than budget cutting, financial regulation, and campaign finance reform can finally be built on that anger.
The other story is more narrowly focused on the coming election, and it goes like this: If the economy continues to recover, and the Republicans keep pandering to their base on social issues, President Obama is almost certain to win reelection and Democrats might even retain control of the Senate and gain some ground in the House.
Those two stories aren’t incompatible, exactly. Both could be true, and some have even argued that the Occupy movement helped salvage the Obama presidency, encouraging him to talk more about inequality. But it’s more likely that over the medium term—into 2013 and 2014—“Occupy changed everything” and “America is back” (the emerging Obama campaign theme) represent somewhat different paths for American politics, one of which will take primacy over the other. And increasingly it seems like it will be the latter: If the economic recovery is solid enough for the president to win reelection, it will be an indication that the white-hot fury over economic stress is passing, and political alignments have returned to the trend first set in the 1990s, in which better off suburban swing voters turn to Democrats; young people, unmarried women, and minorities make up an increasing share of the electorate; and the last remnants of the “culture wars” damage the right. In other words, it would be an atmosphere where the political tensions of recent years are finally on the wane.
When politics is not saturated by crisis, the months after a presidential election generally bring a cooler climate to Washington. We’ve been in a hot phase since about late 2005, when anger over the Iraq War peaked, and three massive change elections followed, in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Anger has been the prevailing tone of politics since the recession began, and the failure, before the arrival of the Occupy movement, of the President, Democratic politicians, and most progressive organizations to master the politics of anger has been central to the story of the last few years. But anger is a difficult force to sustain. Whether it’s left-populist anger, right-populist anger, or the anger of bankers whose bonuses are smaller than expected, it burns bright and eventually burns out.
The early second terms of popular presidents are very often cool and productive periods. After Bill Clinton survived an anger wave in his first term, 1997 was a calm year in which legislation such as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program was passed, and it also brought a surprising turn toward greater public trust in government. The same could be said of the two years after Ronald Reagan’s reelection, which included enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. George W. Bush, who gave up on his major second-term initiative, Social Security privatization, within a few months, is the notable exception to this rule.