Let’s step back a century. William Howard Taft was in the White House. He came into office literally as the progressive’s progressive, having been Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-selected successor. He began to initiate more trust-busting suits than even his predecessor. He supported an income tax for corporations and a constitutional amendment permitting an income tax for individuals.
Then came an abrupt change, beginning with his firing of conservationist Gifford Pinchot, a TR acolyte who served as chief forester. There had been signs suggesting a conservative impulse; Taft had supported the Payne-Aldrich tariff that didn’t approach progressive hopes for tariff reform. By the time his term was up, Taft had drifted far from his progressive moorings.
What’s the lesson? Not that Taft was a traitor to his own ideology, though surely many Republicans considered him one. Not that personal betrayal, which was how Roosevelt regarded Taft’s apostasy, has political consequences, which it does. Instead, the lesson is that while presidents may be isolated in the White House, they are not frozen in place there. They change. They see life differently from behind the desk in the Oval Office, which incidentally acquired that architecture and name in Taft’s time.
This is instructive as we approach the beginning of Barack Obama’s second term. He’s the same man, but will he be the same president? With eight years in office will he change more than Taft did in four? Will his transformation as president transform the political landscape or will it reflect transformations in the political landscape? If we agree that we will not recognize his face at the end of two terms — already he looks older, grayer — will we not recognize his presidency either?
We’ve started seeing changes in his approach. In earlier budget fights — which define the confrontations of the Obama era even more than the wars he’s fought or the killing of Osama bin Laden — he stayed close to the White House and held his cards close to his vest. Not this time.