Scientific Committee: François de Chantal (Political Science, Paris Diderot) – Andrew Diamond (History, Paris 4) – Frédérick Douzet (Geopolitics, Paris 8) – Romain Huret (History, EHESS) – Denis Lacorne (Political Science, Sciences-Po/CERI) – Vincent Michelot (Political Science, IEP Lyon) – Jean-Christian Vinel (History, Paris Diderot) – Julien Zarifian (Geography, Cergy Pontoise University).
Venue: Université Paris 7 (auditorium Buffon to be confirmed). Official address: 4 rue Marie-Andrée Lagroua Weill-Halle, 75013 Paris. Public Access (ground floor): 15 rue Hélène Brion 75013 Paris.
If the historic nature of the 2008 elections is not disputable, the decisive nature in policy terms of Obama’s two terms is a matter of debate. Using Stephen Skowronek’s typology of presidential leadership (1993), we can question whether Obama was, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a position to “repudiate” the prior political and social order to build a new one. More generally, was Obama’s presidency a “transformative” event that made substantive changes possible? Or was it, as Cass Sunstein anticipated (2008), a “minimalist” presidency, or even a traditionalist “restoration”? Obama’s presidency actually seems to be in-between these clear-cut categories, but to what extent and how?
The first objective of this international conference is to provide an early assessment of Obama’s presidency by comparing it to previous major waves of reforms. The example of Obama’s presidency will also allow participants to think in more general terms about progressivism and its limits within the budget and institutional constraints of the American polity. To do so, the conference will be organized around the four following topics:
1. The legislative record of Obama’s administration naturally calls for a comparison with past reform attempts. The similarities between the New Deal and the Great Society, on the one hand, and Obama’s presidency, on the other hand, have been noticed by many (Kloppenberg, 2010), especially because the progressives’ hopes were once more placed in the presidency. The inauguration of a new and charismatic president in a context of social and economic collapse and the repudiation of the Republican Party combined to create a sense that 2008 was quite similar to the 1932 elections and FDR’s victory. The agenda of the incoming president also echoed the 1930s as the stimulus plan, Wall Street reform and healthcare reform (a goal that had loomed large on the agenda of all Democratic presidents since FDR’s refusal to include a healthcare provision as part of Social Security) were finally adopted during the 111th Congress. Not only can Obama’s achievements be seen as being in the wake of FDR’s, but the presidency of the first black president seemed to fulfill, at least symbolically, the promises of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Obama’s personal story-telling was based on the integration of values & codes inherited from the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, as illustrated by his 1995 autobiography,Dreams From My Father. He also willingly displayed his sense of belonging to the black community by ticking the “Black/African-American” box in the 2010 census. Taken together, all these elements combined to elevate Obama’s presidency to the status of a third successful wave of progressive reforms that would also realize the dream of a “post-racial” society.
2. The second dimension we wish to explore during this conference is the crisis of the American political system. During the Obama years, there was first an institutional crisis. Gridlock fueled debates about the decline of the American Republic (Ackerman, 2010). Faced with a paralyzed Congress, Obama resorted to independent executive action in a number of areas such as immigration, which led his Republicans opponents to denounce abuses of Presidential power –a total reversal of rhetoric compared to the Bush presidency. There was also a political crisis, with the rise in partisanship. In many ways, Obama’s calls for a « post partisan era » of government was impossible with a Republican party moving further to the right. In the meantime, a budgetary crisis resulting from the conflicts between Obama and the republicans weakened the credibility of the US and turned the annual vote of the budget into yearly drama. Finally, there has been a crisis at the level of citizenship, with movements left and right (Occupy Wall Street, The Tea Party) challenging the legitimacy of elected officials. A kind of cynicism about traditional establishment politicians seems to have taken root, one reinforced by the ongoing debate over the Citizens United decision.
3. The third dimension we invite scholars to explore is made up of three burning issues –inequality, racial relations and immigration. Seven years after Obama was sworn into office, the crisis of the Middle class –one of the 2008 campaign themes—is as important a political issue as ever. Labor unions seem have been weakened by multiple conservative assaults, particularly in the private sector. The right to work movement has made progress in the North, and its constitutional strategy has led to a much anticipated decision by the Supreme Court (Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.). In the meantime, the administration has failed to raise the minimum wage, and more generally to offer a solution to the growing class inequality. The tax system –both at the state and federal level- has remained unchanged, but the gap between taxes on income and taxes on capital has grown. The enormous success of Capital, Thomas Piketty’s book, has largely captured growing concerns over what is an increasingly unequal fiscal system. As for racial relations, they have not improved with the election of a Black President. The riots in Ferguson and Baltimore and the recent events of police brutality are stark reminders of the persistence character of race as a dividing line in American society (Sugrue 2010). In spite of the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and although Obama denounced the brutality that caused the riots, nothing has been done to reform the penal system and question the “carceral state” that has caused so much damage to African American communities. Meantime, another Supreme Court decision, this time on the Voting Rights Act, (Shelby County v. Holder) has weakened the legal tools used to combat discrimination. Finally, because racial divisions also take root in urban geography, education, and the evolution of work in post-industrial America, we also invite scholars to submit proposals dealing with the intersection of race and class. Finally, immigration remains an unresolved problem. The paralysis of Congress on this issue is such that during the Obama years, most attempts to deal with it –both progressive and conservative—have taken place at the local level. As it stands federal immigration policy is a patchwork that offers no way forward.
4. The last topic of the conference is foreign policy. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize that Obama received also illustrated the high hopes placed in the incoming president after the controversies surrounding Bush’s decisions to go to war. Obama did succeed in withdrawing American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, but these successes created in turn new challenges, from Libya to Syria, including the rise of Daesch, that made the well-publicized American “pivot” to Asia much more complicated to implement. This facilitated a return to the Atlantic framework inherited from World War Two, especially in the context of the Ukrainian crisis and the renewed tensions between Russia and the U.S. But how substantial has the rediscovery of the Atlantic alliance been? Especially when U.S. foreign policy turns to unilateralism whenever Americans deem it necessary. The raging debate over mass surveillance since Snowden’s revelations in June 2013 and its negative impact on the Old Continent illustrate the persistence of misunderstandings between America and its European allies. If the official use of the expression “War on Terror” was dropped by Obama, the practice persists (drones), especially under the guise of “cyber security,” which still creates tensions in the Euro-American relationship. Besides, the protection of individual privacy in the context of mass surveillance (Jeff Rosen, 2001) and the democratic framework suitable to preserve accountability are especially acute issues after eight years of increasing cyber innovations. Those new challenges call for a complete rethinking of international law and collective security. Finally, the free-trade agenda of the Obama administration – toward Asia and Europe – can be regarded as both a way to deepen the relations with allied nations and a source of major tensions, especially in Europe. Recent diplomatic successes of the Obama administration, like the nuclear agreement with Iran, could also be addressed.
Taken together, the Obama presidency seems to have provided as many solutions as it created new problems. The “third wave” of American progressivism that so many people expected in 2008 turned out to be a difficult adjustment to the realities of American politics in a severe social and economic context. After eight years in power, Obama’s record is certainly a mixed bag for many, especially for his most enthusiastic supporters of 2008. Nevertheless, the conference will try to put forward a more nuanced assessment of a Presidency that seems to defy many of the existing categories.
– March, 31st 2016 : deadline for proposals (500 words max., with a title and an institutional affiliation). Proposals will be sent to François de Chantal, firstname.lastname@example.org and Jean-Christian Vinel <email@example.com>.
– June, 30th 2016 : Committee’s response.
– The final & written version of the paper is expected by November 2016.