Theda Skocpol

The Obama Agenda… for a New Deal, Part II

VTR Date: February 19, 2011

Sociologist Theda Skocpol continues her discussion of contemporary politics.


GUEST: Theda Skocpol
AIR DATE: 2/19/2010

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And once again today my guest is Theda Skocpol, the much acclaimed Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, whose contributions to scholarship, as well as the honors and awards she has received for her researches and writings, are almost too numerous to recount.

Dr. Skocpol joins me, of course, as the co-author – along with University of Minnesota scholar Lawrence Jacobs – of the Russell Sage Foundation’s impressive new study: “Reaching for a New Deal: President Obama’s Agenda and the Dynamics of U. S. Politics”.

In it, Professors Skocpol and Jacobs have organized and presented various scholars’ findings on the course and fate during the first half of the Obama Administration of a number of areas of domestic change promised by the President as candidate.

These reports are on health reform, financial regulation, energy and climate change, tax policy, higher education funding, primary and secondary school reform, immigration policy, and labor law reform.

Now, last time, Professor Skocpol began to report on the reports…and we’ll pick up now where we left off then. Professor Skocpol we didn’t get terribly far …

SKOCPOL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … but I’d like to go … seriatim … down on some of the reports of your work. Number one the eliminating the market middle man … redirecting and expanding support for college students. What’s the report on that?

SKOCPOL: Well, it’s a good one to select to get at one of the central dilemmas that a change oriented Democratic President faced at this point.

Now Obama comes into office … there are a lot of people saying “Oh, he’s got a chance for a new New Deal” because he’s got a big Democratic majority behind him. And he had promised to ask more from the wealthy and do more to create a “bottom-up” economy with opportunity, security for the majority of Americans.

Now, helping people to go to college is a big part of that because over the last several decades the United States has gone from Number One to Number Eleven in graduating people from college. And the drop off has, especially been for lower middle income and lower income families that can’t afford to send their young people to college.

Federal policy has become less and less generous. So one of the reforms that Obama proposed … one of many … was to reform our loan and, and grant system, to remove banks, which had been serving as middle men for Federal … Federally guaranteed college loans and raking off a profit for serving as middlemen with no risk, really. And use the, the money … billions of dollars, tens of billions of dollars saved by setting aside the banks as middlemen, to make Pell grants for poor, college students more generous and to improve the terms of loans to middle class families.

HEFFNER: And that worked?

SKOCPOL: It did. Now … it barely made it … it had to make it through not just the House of Representatives, but through the Senate where, as we know, Republicans insist on 60 votes out of 100 for anything to even be talked about, let alone voted on.

It was folded into the end game for the affordable care act and passed by 51 votes in the Senate. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been passed at all.

Now, the point I want to make about this, is that this is emblematic of, of the challenge a reform oriented Democrat faced in the early 21st century.

Back in the 1930’s FDR was getting the Federal government involved in promoting security and opportunity for the majority of Americans for the first time in peacetime.

It’s one thing to create programs that are brand new. But Obama came to office after decades of regulatory and spending interventions with a big fiscal deficit and a lot of encrusted lobbyists in Washington prepared to defend the privileges of every group and every industry that had a stake in Federal policy.

HEFFNER: I had the feeling as I read about this in your overall evaluation, that here was real redistribution of wealth (laugh).

SKOCPOL: It was and Obama, at least for the first two years of his Presidency, when he had Democrats in Congress, has tried to pull back from some of the special profits and regulatory advantages and tax advantages for the wealthy and for privileged businesses … and used the resources that were freed up to expand health care, to improve the terms of college loans … those are just some of the examples.

But my point would be … it’s been an uphill, all out war, every step of the way. Because the groups that had a stake in the older ways of doing things, knew exactly what they were going to lose and they didn’t’ want to give up any of their advantages or privileges.

They could get messages out on the media, deploy hundreds of lobbyists to pressure Congress, they have all the advantages in fighting these things. So, even though many people think that Obama’s promises have changed, have fallen short … and they have in many areas, I think we should all pause for a moment and recognize that some of his big victories in financial reform, higher education loan reform, and above all, the affordable care act … health reform … were very hard fought and are remarkable achievements given the opposition he faced.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s go through them seriatim so that we can really have a score card. Okay, the contest of lobbies and disciplines. Financial politics and regulatory reform in the Obama Administration.

How does Daniel Carpenter come up on that? What’s the report card say?

SKOCPOL: Well, I’d say he probably comes out somewhere around a B or B plus, depending on whether we’re in the grade inflation (laugher) environment.

Dan Carpenter is one of my colleagues at Harvard University and he … his chapter does a wonderful job of explaining … not just why it was hard to get financial reform … new rules of the game for Wall Street and its products through Congress, but why it was difficult to work it out in the Federal bureaucracy where you had a series of agencies with cozy relationships with Wall Street that had a stake in keeping things the way they are.

And part of his story is the story over the creating the, the consumer product safety bureau that is headed by Elizabeth Warren and how hard that was opposed and how it ultimately happened but only in a way that keeps that Bureau part of the Fed.

HEFFNER: You know you make such an interesting point … that here that in the absence perhaps, or where there is an absence of major legislative change … that the Administration itself can do very much in changing the complexion of this nation.

SKOCPOL: Yes, and you know, the Presidency is so hard fought in the United States because even when a President is stymied in what he or we hope she can get through Congress, a lot can be done the Cabinet agencies and through regulation.

So a good example of that that Dorian Warren of Columbia University talks about in this volume is labor law reform.

You know the labor movement is beleaguered, the union sector has shrunk in the United States, but they went all out to help elect Obama in 2008.

And their number one piece of what they wanted in return was for Obama and the Democratic majorities to pass changes in the rules governing the formation of labor unions that would allow for quick elections and perhaps card check rather than giving employers a chance over many months to defeat a union drive.

Well, that law just … that bill just didn’t have a chance. As was true in a number of these policy areas like environmental and energy reform and immigration reform, once the Republicans in the 111th Congress decided to say “no” to any and everything President Obama wanted, it was a question of whether you could get Democrats to hang together.

When do Democrats hang together?

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SKOCPOL: No very often. And they had to have virtually everybody onboard in the House majority and they had to have 60 Democrats plus Joe Lieberman … whatever he is … in the Senate. They couldn’t do that in most of these policy areas. They certainly couldn’t do it in changing labor law. So, or in the environmental and energy area.

So what did Obama’s Administration do? It fell back on trying to do things through the Federal bureaucracy, through appointing good people to key agencies or to the National Labor Relations Board and coming up with rulings that would do things through regulation rather than through legislation.

HEFFNER: Now, with a new Republican House, pledged again to say “no”, can those administrative changes … are they likely to be undone themselves?

SKOCPOL: Well, in the labor law area you know I think Obama’s Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis will continue to enforce rules that Republicans before her were simply not enforcing even though they were on the books. Health … I mean health and safety …


SKOCPOL: And the National Labor Relations Board will have some of the appointees that the union movement wanted serving until their Presidential appointments without Congressional approval run out.

In many areas, though, environment and energy, health care, the Republicans will go on the offensive … they … in the House … they will drag people in for hearings, they will try to embarrass them, they will try to de-fund particular parts of, of laws that are already on the books.

And we’re going to see whether President Obama and his Administration both have some backbone and whether they are able to turn some of these theatrical events around.

Remember years ago when Oliver North went into a Congressional hearing and turned it against its … the people who were trying to embarrass him.

If the Democrats are any good at political theater, they’ll turn some of these hearings around and embarrass House Republicans.



HEFFNER: … you say. They don’t have a chest full of medals either.

SKOCPOL: No, they don’t.

HEFFNER: They won’t come in full regalia …

SKOCPOL: No. Democrats are puzzlingly poor at communications these days. I, I don’t quite understand it.

HEFFNER: Well, what’s your guess as a political scientist about the power of the one House now dominated by Republicans to, if I may be so indelicate … to screw up the works for the Administration.

SKOCPOL: Oh, I think they’re going to try and I think they’ll probably make a fair amount of headway. But we’ll see very, very early in the next year whether President Obama will cave to everything they try to do or will call their bluff on some of the things.

And, ahh, so far he’s shown signs of compromising in advance every time. And every time he does that, the Republicans says, “Thank you very much, that’s not enough, give us more.”

I think he has a reputation in Washington now for being weak.

HEFFNER: My god.

SKOCPOL: And that’s not good, because Washington is a town full of sharks.

HEFFNER: It’s too depressing. Let me go on to the, to the next chapter in this book. And it’s very close to what you’re saying, the contest of lobbies and disciplines.

SKOCPOL: Well, we talked about that, that’s …


SKOCPOL: … the financial …

HEFFNER: … yes, but I want to go further on the matter of lobbies.

SKOCPOL: Oh, yes. Well, lobbies are … you know President Obama said he wouldn’t appoint lobbyists to his Administration … and he made …

HEFFNER: But he didn’t.

SKOCPOL: … exceptions … but on the whole he didn’t. But, so interesting. I mean one of the things that the Tea Party movement has in common with many Leftists is the suspicion of the close relationship between lobbyists and Congress.

And yet most of the Tea Party House and Senate candidates that have won have hired lobbyists, inside lobbyists with long histories of advocating for business subsidies to work for them. So I don’t think the lobbies are going anywhere.

HEFFNER: Not going anywhere away.

SKOCPOL: No. They’re right there.

HEFFNER: Okay, let’s, let’s move on to the, the unsurprising failure of labor law reform … in a sense you’ve touched on that.

Surprising momentum, spurring education reforms in states and localities. And you’ve touched on that to a certain extent. But what … elaborate on that if you will.

SKOCPOL: Well, that’s a fascinating story and I think we’re going to see more of this over the next couple of years.

You know the Education Department is one of the smallest and weakest parts of the Federal government and yet …

HEFFNER: Arnie Dunkin doesn’t look as …

SKOCPOL: Arnie Dunkin doesn’t look weak and he actually managed to use money that he got through the stimulus legislation to encourage the states to compete for grants in the “Race to the Top” program.

Lorraine McDonnell who’s, who’s a specialist on this writes about this fascinating story of how they used Federal stimulus money to encourage the spread of local and state educational reforms and to get dozens of states to do things if even though only a few of them got the ultimate grants.

HEFFNER: By bidding.

SKOCPOL: Yes, by bidding. And you know, that’s clever because, of course, there are many policy areas in which the Federal government doesn’t have direct control. What it can do is dangle carrots.

And if you can get states and localities to compete to do better, in return for these kinds of carrots, you can actually promote much more change than you might … then might seem possible with a small Federal budget in an area. That’s the story that gets told for education reform.

HEFFNER: Plus or minus, in the long run? Or in the short run?

SKOCPOL: Well, I mean as Lorraine McDonnell argue … McDonald argues … what comes next we don’t know and the Federal stimulus money is going away. But some of these changes that are being made in the states probably are going to stick.

I expect Obama to talk about education reform going into the 2012 election.

HEFFNER: Now, further on our scorecard here. Immigration reform. A tough sell for a grand bargain.

SKOCPOL: Yes. John Skrentny talks about this, this area and, you know, here’s a President who was elected with remarkable turnout among the Latino populations. And he promised both Latinos and frankly many groups in the United States that he would reform what we consider to be a broken immigration system.

But now with a new idea, I mean Skrentny tells us that Obama tried to revive the grand compromise that almost passed under President …


SKOCPOL: … Bush and which originally had some Republican support. This is an area where you had to have both Republican and Democratic support because the Democratic Party is divided, as is the Republican Party.

And this just didn’t go anywhere in a climate in which Republicans were just saying “no” to everything.

So it remains unresolved. Obama has actually cracked down on illegal immigrants and on employers of illegal immigrants to a much greater degree than any previous President. But it remains a hot button political issue that many Republicans are using to mobilize support among White native born Americans.

HEFFNER: Figure that one out. The crackdown?

SKOCPOL: Well, I think that Obama, like many Presidents has felt that if we can’t show that we’re trying to enforce the rules of entry, that it will be very difficult to get a political compromise about legalizing people who are already here.

HEFFNER: Rationalization … question mark?

SKOCPOL: I don’t think it’s a rationalization. I think it’s probably an attempt to make things work.

Now the Obama people have changed the emphasis. They’ve done a bunch of showy things about sending forces down to the border in places like Arizona.

But all the research shows that that will never work. All it does is cause more deaths and cost a lot of resources.

You cannot keep illegals from crossing a huge land frontier when the economic incentives are high.

Fewer are crossing right now, mainly because the economy is in a slow down.

HEFFNER: You know that and … because you tell me … I know that. The Administration must know that, too.

SKOCPOL: They know it and I think they have placed a lot of emphasis, though, on trying to prevent employers from hiring undocumenteds.

And if you think about it … why would they do that? Well, they’re trying to get at the one policy that would actually work … if the jobs aren’t there, people won’t come … and they’re trying to satisfy the trade union component of the Democratic Party and they’re trying to create some incentive for a deal in Congress that requires some Republican votes. It hasn’t worked, it’s not going to work in the near future.

HEFFNER: That’s the key thing, isn’t it?


HEFFNER: And you don’t think it’s going to work.

SKOCPOL: No, I don’t because I don’t see the two parties coming together around any aspect of immigration reform right now. And John Skrentny argues that the grand bargain is really dead and that, that most parts of it will pass.

HEFFNER: Cold front, how the recession stalled Obama’s clean energy agenda.

SKOCPOL: Now Judith Layzer talks about this fascinating area and you know, I think a lot of people had high hopes that this was the chance for some sort of comprehensive energy policy that would have components that could deal with climate change issues.

Particularly a cap and trade system. And once again, this would have required votes from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress so it was in a way a non-starter.

But I think what really undermined this and Layzer talks about this in detail … is that in an economic downturn it’s very easy for Conservative opponents of any kind of climate change legislation, funded by the oil and gas industry … secretly, actually, for the most part to convince Americans that they be forced to pay more for gasoline or for home heating. And so this is really, in many ways, a casualty of the deep economic downturn that greeted Obama.

HEFFNER: In the few minutes we have remaining what is Chapter 9 in your book, “Paying America’s way the fraught politics of taxes, investments and budgetary responsibility”.

SKOCPOL: Well, this one’s not going away is it? Because Obama campaigned for office saying that the rich and … let’s be clear … most of the results of economic growth in this country for the last several decades have gone in the form of outrageous profits and tax breaks to the very wealthy … to millionaires and billionaires.

And Obama promised to let the tax breaks for that highly privileged group that were costing this country so much over the long run … to let them lapse.

We now know that he has broken that promise … at least temporarily in the tax cut deal he sponsored with the incoming Republicans. As Andrea Campbell lays out all the rest of this … health care reform, economic development, higher education, depends on figuring out a way to become more honest about the taxes we’re going to have to pay in this country, and collect if we’re going to do anything together through government.

Ahh, Obama deserves some credit for being willing to talk about a topic that for the most part Democrats don’t want to even name. But he has not succeeded in holding the line against disproportionate giveaways … reductions in the tax burden to the very wealthy.

HEFFNER: Okay. Conclusion … he has not held the line … in the couple of minutes that we have left I want to ask you, as we go down the judgments that are made … about the promise that we all identified with the new Administration … what’s your own sense … you as an observer of American polities … what’s you own sense about … of the question of “Would you have done the same? Would it be just about the same … for good or for bad, if you were doing it?

SKOCPOL: Given the extraordinary opposition to changing directions in domestic policy that Obama has faced, I think he’s done a pretty good gob …some major things have been accomplished over the first two years. If he’s re-elected many of them will survive and they will be there to build on in the future.

But where I fault him and where I would have done differently or had someone do differently … was I think he needed to recognize that if you’re going to take office just as American is plunging into a financial crisis that’s going to undermine the family fortunes of, of millions of people and of, you know, the particularly … wealth … in the housing market and lead to prolonged high unemployment … people wanted him to have a bold plan for economic renewal and for job creation. And he didn’t articulate that. I think it’s very disappointing that he didn’t.

He’s not gotten the right economic advice, perhaps, or he was too worried about what should get through Congress. But I think Americans, to this moment … want to hear from the President about where the country needs to go to revive our economy, create full employment, make us more competitive with the Chinese.

And he should lay that out. Even if it can’t all be achieved in the next Congressional session.

HEFFNER: When you say … even at this moment … you’re saying then … something substantial can be done

SKOCPOL: Well at the very least, he could use the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to lay out what the challenges America faces economically are and what he thinks should be done.

For example, we need to renew the infrastructure in this country. Repair and fix a lot of things … make sure we have high speed Internet that’s universal. These are things that would capture the popular imagination.

Research in political science shows that people often like concrete things like that. And it could be made a patriotic argument about what we need to make American fully competitive on the world stage.

It’s a good moment to invest through perhaps public/private partnerships in, infrastructure development and renewal and it would create jobs in America, not in China or India, the way tax cuts for the very rich tend to do.

Would he be able to get that through Congress? Well, no. He’s not going to get anything through Congress if the Republicans in the House don’t want over the next two years.

But he might capture the American imagination. He might not just squeak through to re-election; he might actually get re-elected with some enthusiasm, and then he could have leverage to push that in a second term.

HEFFNER: Dr. Skocpol, you’re going to have to come back some time, when all of this has played out. Thank you very much, though, for having joined me today and last time.

SKOCPOL: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.