The Democratic Party, after the demise of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, became less an advocate for social equity and more a herald for civil rights and the environment.
The Democrats who succeeded LBJ in the White House, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were noticeably unenthusiastic about grand experiments to perfect the American dream. Even Obama's health care reform is modest despite conservative attempts to label it radical.
But the lack of any grand vision in the post-Johnson Democratic presidencies bespeaks a dearth of imagination. Clinton particularly seemed to take great joy in pronouncing the epitaph on the Great Society. In 1996, he declared that "the era of big government is over" and undid a welfare safety net. His paramount contribution was to deregulate financial institutions, weakening a key tenet of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Moreover, he took his marching orders from Dick Morris, who seemed not to have any core principles. If Jerry Seinfeld's show was a "show about nothing," Clinton's lacked any overarching theme except perhaps "enrich yourself."
For Obama, it is more complicated. It is much harder to write him off simply as a Clinton clone. To his credit, he actually has tried to move a nation and he has shown that although he moves slowly, he moves. For instance, he withdrew from Iraq quickly once the Arab spring gave him cover. In Afghanistan, as well, the demise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida emboldened Obama to step up the pace of withdrawal. Occupy Wall Street as well gave him the green light to shift to questions of fairness rather than how to cut government. His style is patient, but when events present themselves, he is quick to take advantage.
Moreover, he is the most Democratic president since the Kennedy-Johnson years.
Jimmy Carter often had problems identifying the pantheon of the party, such as his gaffe at the 1980 convention of lauding "Hubert Horatio Hornblower Humphrey." Clinton was positively historical in approach with little emotional links to the party. Obama, on the other hand, has a firm grasp of what Democrats stand for. Slowly but surely, he is remaking the party.
Because of Occupy Wall Street and the labor revolts in Ohio and Wisconsin, party activists are trying to rebuild a key element of Democratic politics. Organized labor was sorely neglected in the 1960s. LBJ, despite super majorities in the 1965-1967, made only a halfhearted effort to repeal Taft-Hartley. George McGovern, the 1972 nominee, was noticeably cool to the AFL-CIO and Carter apparently saw no political downside in making labor pay through the nose in 1979-1090. As for Clinton, it was simply benign neglect. Obama has offered verbal support. However, because of Occupy and Ed Schultz, a key element is being refurbished. Not since 1958 has labor been so at the forefront.
The unraveling of a coalition constructed since 1972 from one with emphasis on "rights" rather than responsibility is not easy. But Obama has shown that if given cover or some pretext, he will adjust. Certainly his approach on the payroll tax illustrates the clout of the Occupy forces. Also, Obama can still count on his Wall Street allies who have seen the potential of citizen action to the point that they may moderate their own behavior. The Ayn Randist conceit of the summer has been discarded in favor of the common good. Obama thus is able to have his cake and eat it too.
When Franklin Roosevelt constructed the modern Democratic Party, he had to move slowly. The first New Deal with its market-oriented premises was replaced by the second with its Wagner Act and Social Security. Will Rodgers described FDR's conversion as "lay over Huey I want to get in bed with you," referring to Huey Long, the advocate of "share our wealth." That was telling. Pressure pays, but it also allows Obama to rebuild the Democratic Party by adhering to what Lincoln called "the better angels" of his nature.