the financial crisis and Barack Obama’s ascent to the Presidency, 2008 struck
many observers—including this one—as reminiscent of the watershed election year
1932. Even Obama’s personal moderation recalled the careful, budget-balancing
F.D.R. of that campaign. It was national calamity and need that would push
President Roosevelt in a more radical direction, and it seemed that similar
events—bank failures, mass unemployment, epidemic foreclosures, despair—would
drive President Obama the same way, toward equally far-reaching policies.
didn’t happen like that, and for many reasons: this time around, the onset of
an incipient depression nearly coincided with the arrival of the new
Administration, and the hard times never ran quite deep enough to unite the
country; the new President showed his inexperience, governed more cautiously
than he had campaigned, and lost the rhetorical power that had connected him to
the voters; his opponents, far from beaten, grew more extreme than ever; key
institutions like Congress, the media, and corporations were no longer
responsive to the demands of democracy; the public had lost its trust. And so
we’ve had five years of far-from-unmitigated letdown.
year began with the inauguration of Bill de Blasio. In his first address as
this city’s new Mayor, he aligned himself with New Yorkers from that earlier
era: Roosevelt himself; Al Smith, the reform-minded machine pol, who fought for
improved working conditions in sweatshops and later turned against the New
Deal; Frances Perkins, the social worker who became Roosevelt’s labor secretary
and implemented the forty-hour week and the minimum wage; and Fiorello La
Guardia, de Blasio’s favorite predecessor in the mayor’s office, a Republican
who, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “played the broker between New York
radicalism and the progressivism of inner America.”
with Elizabeth Warren, de Blasio is the most visible face and potent voice of a
new political spirit. For the first time in decades, liberalism is once again
becoming “a fighting faith” (Whitman’s phrase, revived by Schlesinger). This
spirit has almost nothing to do with the perpetual battle for the soul of the
Democratic Party, or the Center for American Progress against the Third Way, or
Clinton vs. Warren in 2016. It is the political articulation of a wide and deep
sense of outrage and disenchantment, which is why it has legs. It has to do
with a sense that the deck is stacked in favor of the few, that ordinary
people’s aspirations hardly stand a chance.
are loath to feel that way, which is why the moment has been such a long time
coming. It took form through the crises of 2008, the muddled legislative
battles of 2009-10, the Occupy memes and protests of 2011, the electoral
campaigns around the country for a higher minimum wage, and the emergence of
inequality as the focal point of profound economic discontents. Obama gave a
speech about it in Osawatomie, Kansas, in the wake of Occupy, and last year he
pushed it toward the center of his second Inaugural Address, and last month,
speaking in a poor Washington neighborhood, he gave it his fullest
consideration to date, calling inequality “the defining challenge of our time”
and pledging to devote his second term to confronting it.
breakthroughs rarely happen in second terms, not even in Roosevelt’s, certainly
not in today’s Washington. Obama’s contribution to fighting inequality and
enlarging opportunity is already law, a historic one—the Affordable Care Act.
Therein lies his Presidency’s claim to greatness, and its pathos: not just the
political bloodshed, the flawed rollout, and the uncertain implementation but
also the sense—which Obama perhaps shares—that he should have achieved even
more. If there’s a new liberal moment, President Obama may have missed it.
who’s disgusted with the politics and economics of inequality should wish Bill
de Blasio well. He made it his theme and rode it to an overwhelming victory, in
the process surprising opinionmakers who live on the winning side of the divide
with the news that large numbers of other New Yorkers feel left out and
discarded. It’s unclear how much the Mayor of New York can do about entrenched
economic unfairness, beyond bringing to bear the power of rhetoric. It’s also
unclear whether de Blasio is the mayor to do it. New York’s mayors are managers
more than policymakers—that’s where they succeed or fail. It’s risky for de
Blasio’s tenure to symbolize so much when his power to realize the vision is so
limited. I admire him for aiming so high, but it’s like watching a man set out
on a tightrope strung between skyscrapers.
Blasio’s speech at City Hall was a ringing affirmation of his own cause; as
such, it placed an immense magnifying glass over his mayoralty, one that also
projects a target. The inaugural ceremonies were an unusually ideological and
harsh indictment of the Bloomberg years and Bloomberg’s New York. A minister
described the city as a “plantation.” Letitia James, the new public advocate,
portrayed New York as a heartless place with a “Dickensian” justice system,
where the only person who cares about the homeless and hungry is, apparently,
Letitia James. De Blasio, though more tempered, cast his “progressive” vision starkly
against the “far-right” policies of recent years—fair, accurate, but divisive.
You don’t have to be a member of the one per cent to feel uneasy with the
us-against-them tone of the proceedings.
Blasio won in a landslide, but his mandate won’t extend beyond the first
severely botched snow removal, the first transit disaster, the first spike in
violent crime. New York is a city with many power centers, all of them more or
less booby-trapped. De Blasio, with more than just garbage pickup riding on his
term, is going to need all the help he can get.