Despite all his efforts to transcend partisanship, President Barack Obama is demonstrably a liberal. But what kind of liberal is he? And what does his brand of liberalism augur for America?
Even in the Democratic primaries, he shunned the "liberal" label. (Hillary Clinton did, too, preferring to be called a progressive.) Mr. Obama's favorite tack was to assail the whole argument between left and right as cynical and outdated. In its place he offered a pragmatic, hopeful, allegedly nonideological way forward.
On Election Day, his "working majority for change" turned out for him and the Democratic Party. Since then, Obama has tried to live up to his inaugural pledge to put an end to "the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics." He has emphasized national unity and invoked the Founding Fathers. He met with congressional Republicans, and dined with conservative commentators at George Will's home.
Yet how nonideological can a politician be who was recognized by the National Journal as the most liberal-voting senator in 2007? Almost his first act as president was to issue executive orders repealing the policies of his Republican predecessor. Obama's healthcare and foreign-policy ideas are standard liberal issue.
His stimulus bill, meanwhile, did not get a single Republican vote in the House, and won't get many in the Senate. The problem is that the bill stimulates Democratic constituency groups – government employees, unions, community organizers – more obviously than it does the economy.
Obama's "new politics for a new time" looks increasingly familiar – "pork still, with but a little change of sauce," to quote Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention. But that doesn't mean that this president's liberalism will not be interesting. Indeed, he has endeavored to do no less than complete and perfect the grand liberal project begun a century ago.
Three waves of liberalism
Modern liberalism came to America in three waves, and it's useful to think of Obama in this light.
The progressives of the early 20th century were the original liberals, developing the essential tenets of liberalism as a political doctrine. Woodrow Wilson and others argued that the Constitution was an 18th-century document, based on 18th-century notions of rights. While suited to its day, they said, it was now painfully inadequate unless interpreted in a vital new spirit.
This spirit was Darwinian and evolutionary, turning Hamilton's "limited Constitution" into a "living Constitution" that must be able to adapt its structure and function to meet the latest social and economic challenges. To guide this evolution, to organize society's march into the future, presidents had to cease being merely constitutional officers and become dynamic leaders of popular opinion.
Obama accepts all the major elements of this evolutionary approach to the Constitution and American government. As he wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," the Constitution "is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world."
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…."
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.
His landmark speech on race managed to divorce him from the worst of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fulminations, without quite repudiating the most pernicious of Mr. Wright's assumptions, namely, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were, at least originally, racist documents.
Obama's religious rhetoric
On such issues Obama's best defense is a good offense, and he will doubtless continue therefore to celebrate the importance of religion in his life and in the country's, and to praise America's founders and heroes.
On Jan. 20, from the Capitol's west steps he proclaimed, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers." But he also invoked God five times and Scripture once. The multicultural reflex cannot be banished, but Obama clearly intends to speak in the name of religion. He does not want to leave a naked public square into which only conservative faiths and believers may stroll.
This determination will make for awkward moments: Are all those faiths equally constitutive of American mores? Whose scripture is being consulted here? (His inaugural cited First Corinthians 13:11.) Nonetheless, he is keen for liberalism to become a firm ally of American religiosity, especially insofar as churches are willing to preach a new social gospel devoted to improving the lives of people in this world and around the globe.
The patriotic theme, so prominent in his inaugural, is Obama's reply to the anti-Americanism of the cultural and academic left, those last redoubts of the radical '60s. If he is persuasive, over time he may well heal the worst of the Democratic Party's self-inflicted wounds and prepare it to be the defender of "our better history," as he put it.
A lasting Democratic majority
His ambitions are clear: The speech was a pastiche of themes adapted from FDR and Ronald Reagan, the last two presidents to pull off major electoral realignments (less enduring in Reagan's case). What Obama hopes for is a similar breakthrough for the forces of liberalism in this generation.
An enduring Democratic majority is not out of the question. The wild scramble to stop the economic and financial downturn may well leave America with a politically controlled economy that would corrupt the relationship between citizens and the federal government – sapping entrepreneurship and encouraging new forms of dependence on the state, as in much of Europe. That would be consistent with the more socialized democracy that liberalism has been striving for ever since the Progressive Era.
Obama likes to emphasize that America is more like the world than we realize, and must become still more like it if the US is to remain the world's leader. Despite his summoning oratory, his sense of American exceptionalism thus is far less lofty, far more constrained, than Reagan's or FDR's. The greatest stumbling block to Obama's ambition is likely to be the inability of this exceptional president to persuade Americans to follow him into so unexceptional a future.