How will Obama's liberalism shape America?
The answer lies in understanding the three waves of liberalism in America's past.
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Likewise, in his inaugural address he declared, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…."Skip to next paragraph
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This emphasis on what "works" is his nod to pragmatism, which he implies is almost the opposite of ideological liberalism. In fact, however, such pragmatism is part of liberalism.
What "works," after all, depends on what you think government's purpose is supposed to be. Pragmatism tries to distract us from those ultimate questions, while assuming liberal answers to them. Thus Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal promised "bold, persistent experimentation." Obama's domestic agenda betrays the same eagerness.
Liberalism's second stage was economic. In the New Deal, the Great Society, and its sequels, liberals turned to the wholesale minting of new kinds of rights. Citizens were thus entitled to socioeconomic benefits through programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Besides these entitlements, the federal government also extended its regulatory authority to areas previously private or under state and local jurisdiction.
But this wave crested unexpectedly, and for a while, contemporary liberals seemingly lost their enthusiasm for such top-down regulation and the work of transforming privileges into rights.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of socialist economies around the globe, liberals such as Bill Clinton took a second look at the free market. He populated his Treasury department with highfliers from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. In left-leaning think tanks and even in the academy, capitalism commanded strange new respect. This rehabilitation of the market, though never more than partial, was the greatest change in American liberalism in the past 40 years. Obama absorbed it, as did many members of his new administration.
But the financial crisis and market meltdown have changed things.
It looks like 1932 again, a time for reinvigorated government activism. "Without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control," Obama said in his inaugural. But does the market merely need watching – or some weightier form of "control"?
The final wave of liberalism crashed over America in the 1960s and '70s. Cultural liberalism erupted in the universities but the counterculture quickly went mainstream, bringing sex, drugs, and rock 'n 'roll, not to mention women's liberation, gay liberation, and abortion, to the masses.
So far, the most innovative aspect of Obama's liberalism is how he has tried to transcend its cultural excesses.
Whereas Bill Clinton sometimes embodied the immaturity and self-indulgence of the '60s, Obama's demeanor and family life – even his suits – bespeak a mature, serious liberalism that sees self-control and adulthood as cool.
Still, Obama's political dealings with cultural liberalism are bound to be complicated. He tries to defuse issues such as abortion and gay marriage by not talking about them, except in front of the relevant audience. But as president, his remarks anywhere will be noticed. Though he claims to believe that gun ownership is an individual right protected by the Second Amendment, his support for sweeping gun-control measures suggests a different perspective.