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Is Obama a liberal?
What the first murmurs of revisionism on the Right tell us about Obama's presidency.
 
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum

If Barack Obama is succeeding, then he must be moving to the center. Such is the abrupt conclusion of one of the wisest, or wiliest, conservative commentators. While Peggy Noonan’s verdict will rile the propagators of relentless rage on the Right, it’s actually a clever attempt to rescue them from their own marginalization. Her column seeks to lay the groundwork for future conservative claims — that a presidency that succeeds in rescuing the economy, enacting health-care reform, and combating climate change is somehow not a vindication of progressive ideals. To dispense with euphemism, Noonan is trying to ensure that the ideology that for so long dared not speak its name — liberalism — isn’t credited with Obama’s pending success.

To support her claim of a rightward pivot, Noonan points to Obama’s recent praise for the role of small business in creating jobs. But Obama said exactly the same thing during the campaign, as have other Democrats over the years. (I know — I wrote a lot of the words.) And it’s been Democrats — like Senate Small Business Committee chairman John Kerry — who fought to shift the benefits of tax cuts from the wealthy to small business. That’s progressive.

Likewise, Noonan applauds Obama for directing more than $30 billion in tax relief to “struggling businesses,” and for proposing other tax breaks for small firms. That’s liberalism at its best, based in the Democratic commitment to benefit the many in the middle instead of the few at the top. And it’s part of an economic stimulus — fiercely opposed by Republicans — that is a classic expression of Keynesian fiscal policy and activist government.

Although Noonan doesn’t say it, guaranteeing affordable health coverage to all actually is centrist, in the sense that once the reform is in place the vast majority of Americans will embrace it, as they have embraced Democratic programs like Social Security and Medicare. Health-care reform will never be repealed. And it will pass, with or without the duplicitous turncoat Joe Lieberman. Either the legislation will gain 60 Senate votes, or it will be enacted through the fallback, filibuster-proof process of reconciliation.

Then there’s legislation to cut carbon emissions and combat climate change. As far as I can tell, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is a lonely Republican advocate of serious action — so lonely, in fact, that some party officials in his state have excommunicated him from the conservative church of science denial. It’s hard, even impossible, to regard President Obama’s resolve on climate change as anything but progressive. And it would be a transparent caricature, another reductionist smear of liberalism, to proclaim later this week that he’s changing his political stripes when he tells other nations at the climate summit in Copenhagen that they, too, must do their part.

Instead of denying Obama’s liberalism, pundits would do better to concede his realism. It’s a trait he shares with presidents who have advanced both conservative and liberal conceptions of government. Ronald Reagan raised taxes when he decided he had to. Franklin Roosevelt was accused of zigzagging again and again—and he delayed endorsing Social Security until political calculations convinced him the timing was right. John Kennedy was rightly accused of political caution on civil rights as he waited for an auspicious moment to act.

Obama, too, uses moderate means to achieve progressive ends. He trimmed the stimulus in order to squeeze it through the Senate. But he’ll push additional spending through the pipeline by redirecting repaid TARP bailout funds and by targeting spending in his annual budget. On health care, he’s never taken an intractable position on the details, which is one decisive reason why he’s on the verge of a historic achievement. On climate change, he’s created a fallback in case a nearly dysfunctional Senate deadlocks on the issue. The Environmental Protection Agency has asserted authority to control greenhouse gas emissions; if the Senate won’t legislate, EPA will regulate. That’s presidential leadership; that’s activist government; that’s progress.

That’s liberalism. Liberals have refused to redeem the word as Republicans, from the mid-60s on, rescued the once-reviled term "conservative." In the process, Democrats have lost more than a label; they have often seemed wary of their own beliefs.

No doubt their reticence gives Noonan the confidence to attempt a bait-and-switch. She cites Obama’s Nobel Prize speech as her clinching evidence of a rightward trend. He told off “European leftists” when he defended the notion of a “just war,” she says. Whatever one thinks of Afghanistan, this analysis approaches a libel. In Afghanistan, an increasing number of soldiers from Labour-governed Britain are fighting alongside American forces, whose numbers will be doubled by President Obama. Meantime, the conservative government of Germany conspicuously refuses to send more troops.

Moreover, it’s absurd (though expedient) to conflate “European leftists” — whoever they may be — with American liberals, who supported armed intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s. Like Obama, liberals don’t oppose all wars — just dumb wars, especially those based on false pretenses, imperial delusion, and crude jingoism. Time will tell whether Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan is realistic or foolish. But either way, it’s certainly not evidence of ideological drift.

I was assailed last week for being too enthralled by Obama’s leadership. But smarter conservatives are beginning to sense the trajectory of this presidency — and to understand, as Noonan does, that they may have to finagle a rationalization for the president’s likely successes. In the meantime, Obama almost certainly won’t reject the utility of being labeled a centrist; there is even an element of truth to it. As this president succeeds — with Afghanistan a nagging worry — his progressive principles will increasingly command the broad center of the American electorate. If that’s what they mean by centrism, well, then, by all means, count me a centrist, too.

 

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