Theda Skocpol

The Obama Agenda… for a New Deal

VTR Date: February 12, 2011

Theda Skocpol discusses current trends in U.S. politics.


GUEST: Theda Skocpol
AIR DATE: 2/12/2010

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

  And my guest today is one of the most extraordinary scholars I’ve read or read about in my long life in and around the Academy.

  Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University.  And her contributions to scholarship are almost too numerous to recount, as are the honors and awards she has received for her many writings; her tenure as Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; her election to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and, of course, her Presidencies of the American Political Science Association and the Social Science History Association.

  Today, Dr. Skocpol joins me as the co-author – along with University of Minnesota scholar Lawrence R. 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 describing its project, the Foundation reminds us that Barack Obama won the Presidency as the candidate of change, pledging to fundamentally transform domestic policy in many areas of national life.

And now Professors Skocpol and Jacobs have organized and presented various scholars’ findings on the course and fate of a number of these areas of hoped-for change during the first two years of what the Foundation titles President Obama’s “Reaching for a New Deal”.

  These policy areas include: health reform, financial regulation, energy and climate change, tax policy, higher education funding, primary and secondary school reform, immigration policy, and labor law reform. 

  And I would begin today by asking Professor Skocpol to report on these reports, starting with health reform.  How goes it, how does it fare today?

SKOCPOL: Health reform is on track at the same time that it’s a subject of on-going political controversy and will continue to be.

In retrospect, it’s a little bit surprising that President Obama decided to emphasize comprehensive health reform as a major initiative in the first year of his Presidency because it wasn’t really his top issue during the Democratic primaries leading into the 2008 election and a lot of people told him after he arrived in Washington that he should stop major reforms to concentrate on the economic crisis … ahh, but he plunged in and asked the Democrats in Congress to come up with a comprehensive health reform that fulfilled the ambitions of one hundred years worth of reform … to somehow cover virtually all American citizens … the costs of health care and to control the rising cost to the system as a whole in the future.

It took longer than they thought … it almost didn’t happen, but on … in March of 2010, he signed the affordable care … the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which I’ll call the Affordable Care Act … into law.

HEFFNER: But now it’s not March … it’s December … mid-December 2010 and if one reads the press, one has the feeling that maybe all is not well. What do you think?

SKOCPOL: You know, just yesterday there was a lot of commentary on this latest decision in the courts by Judge Hudson in Virginia … ruling unconstitutional, the part of affordable care that says that in due course, when the Law is fully implemented after 2014, everybody will be required to purchase health insurance with help from Federal subsidies, if necessary … or if they don’t, pay a fine.

The Judge said that was unconstitutional. Two other judges have said it IS constitutional. Ahemm, but this is part of a not surprising on-going battle … between today’s Republican Party which is determined to repeal what they call “Obama care” and President and the Democrats in Washington and beyond who are determined to carry through this complex set of changes that isn’t even scheduled to be fully in effect until after 2014.

I think we’re going to see a lot of shouting, a lot of contradictory court decisions culminating in some judgments at the Supreme Court in due course, but people should realize that while all this is going on, the law is being implemented, step-by-step.

And the most important parts of it, are the vast expansions in Medicaid for the poor and near poor, in subsidies to small businesses and citizens to make health insurance affordable and the new rules of the game for insurance companies in the private market.

Those are moving forward and in due course every state will have a marketplace or exchange on which people, who don’t have insurance in other ways, can purchase insurance with the help of Federal credits.

HEFFNER: Well, I gather from what I’ve read of … in these reports, number one in importance is one that you and Professor Jacobs have done and in thinking about health care I gather you see it as the culmination of a long period of, essentially, Democratic Party reforms …


HEFFNER: Do you think that the delay that you speak about in affecting or you’re saying “Before we get to the Supreme Court, a number of years will have passed by …” and the positive support generation aspects of the plan will lead to a greater public support for it. Is that what you assume?

SKOCPOL: Well, one thing to keep in mind is that even now, if you ask Americans “Do you like the health reform in general? Or do you think it should be modified or even repealed?” It’s about 50/50. It’s been stalled at that ever since the Bill became a law.

But if you ask Americans about all the specific parts of the Bill … do you think people who can’t afford insurance should get help in buying it? Do you think small businesses should get tax credits if they insure their employees? Do you think there should be rules that prevent insurance companies from say discovering that somebody has got a pre-existing condition and dumping them from insurance after they get sick? Those and other parts of the Bill are very popular at the level of specifics.

This isn’t surprising. It’s very much what we’ve seen with major pieces of social legislation throughout US history and it also takes a long time for something like Social Security in 1935, Medicare in 1965. Affordable care in 2010 … to be fully implemented through a process of struggle and then in the end people say, “What was all the fuss about? We like the specific parts of this”.

I think something like that is likely to happen here, but it’s going to take a while.

HEFFNER: But you make no bones about it in your own report, in your book on the Tea Party … you make no bones about the capacity of … aspects of our media to “work over” …

SKOCPOL: Oh yes.

HEFFNER: … public opinion.

SKOCPOL: Absolutely. And in this case, I, I mean we know that every time that health reform has come up in American politics over a hundred years, it, it’s been demonized. I mean the people who supported health insurance for all or for all workers in the 1910’s were called Agents of German Tyranny during World War I.

And they were called Communists in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. I guess it’s a combination of all of the above in the most recent struggles. So that demonization isn’t unusual, but what is a little different this time is that we’ve got a media that … on the one hand you have Fox News that is unabashedly proclaiming Conservative and, and GOP talking points. And in this case attacking what they call “Obama care” unrelentingly.

And the rest of the media is a seris of fragments with this and that piece of the audience that compete with each other to see how much they can argue with or dramatize the agenda that’s often set by Fox News.

So the bottom line is that this time around the demonization really was very pervasive and most Americans have no idea what’s in the health care reform law that passed and many of them think that things like “Death Panels” for the elderly … a ridiculous lie really … are part of the legislation.

HEFFNER: As a political scientist and historian, sociologist … what is your verdict … what verdict do you render on the role of the media as we go forward?

As I read the book on, on the Tea Party I’m not very sanguine.

SKOCPOL: Yeah, I mean the Tea Party … one of my graduate students and I have been engaged in some fascinating research on the Tea Party over the last few months.

And we’ve pulled together what you can read in the public record and the, the various surveys about who the Tea Partiers are and what they think.

But we’ve also gone out an talked to actual Tea Partiers, which turns out to be much more interesting.

Now Tea Partiers are mainly older, White, somewhat richer people and they’re Republicans, but they don’t want to call themselves Republicans because they’re very skeptical of the Republican Party as it came down to 2008 under George W. Bush.

They are very, very hostile to the idea of a young, Black President with, with one foreign parent. They don’t see that as the America that they believe in.

And they’re very worried about things like health care reform … not so much because it’s government, they’re … many of them are on Social Security and Medicare and proud of it …

HEFFNER: But they don’t make that combination …

SKOCPOL: No, they don’t, but they see … they see what they call “Obama care” as spending on other people who may not have earned it the way they did.

Now where did this movement come from? I mean it has a genuine grass roots component. I mean nobody should gainsay that people have been very creative, they’ve organized, they meet, they, they have demonstrations, they dress up in funny costumes … they’re very telegenic … but they all watch Fox News and in many ways Fox News helped to organize this phenomenon by blaring the new identity, the new label and giving people a sense of momentum in the early months of Obama’s Presidency.

So, it’s in a way an echo chamber in which a powerful television network is providing identity and information … quote/unquote “information” … to a group of people who are organizing at the grass roots. And that’s quite a one-two punch against the Obama Presidency.

HEFFNER: That’s why if I remember correctly, the, the Sons of the Wild Jackass, those wonderful old …

SKOCPOL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … Western, mid-Western Liberal … many Republicans were so afraid of the power of the new media and why the FCC, presumably through it’s Fairness Doctrine, ex-Fairness Doctrine and other devices was going to limit the power of the media. We don’t, we don’t have that power …

SKOCPOL: No, we don’t. We have, we have the Wild West now, but the Wild West combined with a very powerful, highly resourceful network that can, that takes up about like 30% of the audience or so. And which is the sole source of, of information for many Conservatives in this country.

HEFFNER: Now are their numbers small enough for it not too mean all that much?

SKOCPOL: Well, the Tea Partiers are no majority. I mean they’re maybe a quarter, but they’re a very substantial part of the Republican Party.

And, you know, the other part of the Tea Party picture that we haven’t talked about is that, you’ve got the grass roots groups, you’ve got Fox News and then you’ve got various freelance billionaires who are working through, in some cases new and in other cases long established advocacy or front groups that channel millions of dollars down to local things that, that they like. That they want to magnify. They played a huge role in the Republican Primaries and in the election … often challenging established Republicans like Lisa Murkowski and Mike Castle.

So that combination of grass roots fervor and big money donors on the Right who are determined to dismantle government regulations, attack Social Security and Medicare … I don’t think many grass roots Tea Partiers understand that, that that’s the agenda of some of the wealthy funders and, of course, they’re determined to get rid of health reform and to defeat Obama for a second term.

HEFFNER: Do you … I, I want to get back to this question of the Obama care and your assumptions as to what it’s fate will be when it does come to the Supreme Court?



SKOCPOL: … well I’m not a lawyer … and the … one thing I can say as a political scientist is that we’ve observed the steady politicization of the judiciary. So that we’re now at the point where you can almost predict what a judge will rule on a Constitutional question … depending on which President appointed them. And that’s what we’ve seen so far.

There have been three Federal decisions … Federal District Court decisions on health care reform. Two judges appointed by Democratic Presidents have found it constitutional, one appointed by a Republican President has found a part of it, unconstitutional. And we may have a second ruling in Florida shortly from a Republican appointed judge.

The interesting thing, though, is that the Judge in Virginia, who’s a very conservative, avowed Republican activist, really, he found one part of the law unconstitutional and he did not accept the request form the plaintiffs to stall the implementation of the entire law. That’s the single most important thing that happened here … that he didn’t accept that request.

He basically went for one piece of the law, that some people think is central, that I don’t think is so central.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

SKOCPOL: No. I think the most important parts of this remarkably comprehensive and equality promoting piece of legislation are the expansions of coverage for working and lower middle class people through expansions of Medicaid in the 50 states, the creation of state level exchanges and the subsidies to enable lower and middle income people to afford insurance.

Those are all proceeding. A lot of what’s happening is happening in the 50 states. And even states that have governors that are screaming against Obama care are sending their officials to the meetings in Washington and elsewhere to figure out how to carry through those major parts of the reform.

HEFFNER: That’s, that’s very interesting. The other question … I was going to ask you about that … about what you’ve said, was whether you were implying that there was a substantial racial underpinning to the opposition that we find in the Tea Party group … and largely, at this point … do you?

SKOCPOL: Well, you know, I, I was, I think along with many people in my profession of political science, somewhat surprised at the degree to which racial worries receded in the 2008 Presidential election.

In the end it doesn’t appear that Obama’s race hurt him, pretty much was a wash. May have hurt him with some White voters, particularly in the South in the 2008 elections, but it was … on the other hand, he got a high turnout, or an enthusiastic turnout among … not just African Americans, but among younger Americans for whom race is simply not the fraught thing that it is for many older Americans.

But after Obama took office, amidst an economic crisis of … you know, as severe as anything we’ve seen since the 1930’s and facing an unremitting attempt on the Right to obstruct what he wanted to do, and to tarnish him, personally, I think that the racial stereotyping, the racial fears have bubbled up more than you might have expected.

Now, in retrospect, change oriented President who appeals to the young, ‘cause there was a sharp age gradient in the voting in 2008 … has one foreign parent, which I think is probably just as important as the color of his skin … for many Tea Partiers and others …that is the, the thing that worries them the most in an era of heightened immigration.

So all of the … in a way he presses a lot of buttons about people who are worried about where America is going. And I wouldn’t characterize it in any simple way as “racism”, but I do think a lot of things came together that magnify racial stereotyping and to give an audience to Right Wing organizers who have unremittingly tried to suggest that Obama is taking money from White Americans to give things to Black and Brown Americans.

HEFFNER: You’re so restrained in your evaluation of this. I’m, I’m interested in that.

SKOCPOL: Well, you know, my job as a student of America, which I love … it’s a country I love, and as a political scientist, originally a sociologist, it, it’s to understand where people are coming from, not to label them.

One of the things I like least in academia these days is … which has now spilled over into our politics, is the desire to label everybody. To condemn. I’m no fan of the Tea Party. But I’ve talked to Tea Partiers … I emailed back and forth with people who are in the Tea Party and I’m trying to understand what they’re seeing, through their eyes. And it’s not, it’s never one dimensional or simple. It never is.

HEFFNER: No, in reading your, your, your commentary on them, I, I realize that there is a … an empathy there … an understanding that is most admirable. Why don’t you extend that to academics … because of the comment you made just before you seem to be further down on your fellow academics.

SKOCPOL: Well, I am an academic and, of course, I love academia. I do think there are parts of academia that have gone overboard with having to pigeonhole everything as “racism” or “sexism” or “classism”. That doesn’t mean that racism and sexism don’t exist.

I just think labeling is the least effective way to deal with them.

HEFFNER: You think it has been effective … you said it moved from the Academy … didn’t move from the Academy, but as in the Academy, now in our politics … do you think it has been effective in our national politics?

SKOCPOL: Well, of course, politics … demonization in politics does work. And, and demonization is a strategy being pursued by the Right in the United States now to quite good effect.

HEFFNER: It certainly worked in the Clinton days, didn’t it? And it seemed almost to be … not to begin …but to have been exacerbated in the Clinton days.

SKOCPOL: Well, we’re seeing quite a remarkable evolution in US Conservatism.

In fact I don’t even think the word “Conservative” applies. Because …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

SKOCPOL: Well, Conservative implies wanting to protect and keep in place things that are traditional. And we are not seeing that over the last 40 years, among US Conservatives and around the Republican Party … they’ve moved to what I would call a radical government bashing stance. And any time a Democrat is elected President, it seems that they are immediately seen as illegitimate by large parts of, of the Right Wing Movements in the United States.

That’s kind of frightening, actually. I find it kind of frightening.

HEFFNER: What do you … what do you see in the future? You say “frightening” … that must mean because you see it expanding, extending.

SKOCPOL: Well, I don’t know that it’s expanding … but one of our two political parties right now spent the last two years in the midst of an economic crisis of un … largely unprecedented proportions over the last decade … saying “no” to everything.

And using obstruction and demonization on an unprecedented scale. That’s kind of worrisome.

HEFFNER: Has it happened before?

SKOCPOL: Yes, of course, it has. You know … we … very little is new. Demonization in politics is not … polarization in politics … none of these things are new in America, they go all the way back to the beginning …

HEFFNER: So why is it …

SKOCPOL: And this country fought a Civil War. I mean and so … it’s hard to find anything as extreme as that.

HEFFNER: But then why, why the concern?

SKOCPOL: Well, because we live in a dangerous world. We seem to have entered into an economic era where the best and the brightest in both political parties and I include the Democrats in this, don’t seem to know what to do to revive a full employment economy.

I think that’s very dangerous in a country where people value work as highly as Americans do. Americans believe that meaning in life comes through work. And getting ahead through work.

So, to accept the idea that we’re going to have a government that’s wracked by partisan struggles and obstruction in a world where we have to worry about all kinds of international threats and we have to find a way to create, to renew a sense of growth and full employment, that’s worrisome because if we can’t act on these major challenges, we’re going to see the United States devolve into a more unequal society and probably into a more politically polarized one.

HEFFNER: You say “probably” … that interests me because certainly the statistics indicate that it’s not … probably in the future …


HEFFNER: … but that it’s happening as we speak.

SKOCPOL: That’s true. Polarization is more intense at the elite level than it is among regular, everyday Americans.

I think there’s still a broad yearning in the country for us to find shared solutions to, to our problems.

HEFFNER: Now one … we, we just have a minute left … one question. Is this as true, do you feel among the Tea Party people that when you scratch them, when you go beneath the surface, they really want to find some solution?

SKOCPOL: I’m not sure about that. I, I … I’m going to have to, to, to withhold judgment because I don’t fully understand the level of anger and fear among Tea Partiers that’s there. And they are disproportionately older.

So they’re not the future. They’re also not the majority.

HEFFNER: Dr. Skocpol I appreciate you’re joining me to day and I’ve taken up so much of our time with fascinating … listening to the fascinating answers that you give to my naïve questions … I want you to stay, if you will, we’ll do another program and we’ll get back to those issues and their lot. Okay?

SKOCPOL: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time as well. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at HYPERLINK “” to reprise this program on line or to draw upon our Archive of 1500 other Open Mind and related programs.

That’s mind.

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.