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How liberal is Obama?

rahmconsidering.jpgIt's not every day that Christian conservative Ross Douthat enthusiastically recommends people read social democrat Tony Judt:

Whether you instinctively agree with them or with me probably says a lot about where you fall on the left/right spectrum. But what’s more, it says a lot about the contemporary United States that the Judt perspective on welfare — anti-work requirements, anti-means testing, anti-moralism, and all the rest — is rarely heard in the national political debate, despite being commonplace on the left. And that, in addition to the opportunity for self-assessment, is what makes his address worth reading in full: It’s both a cri de coeur over the absence of true social-democratic politics in America, and a reminder of how much ideological space there is, even at a moment of liberal ascendancy, to the left of Barack Obama.

The first year of the Obama presidency has been a long tutorial on the difference between liberal ends and liberal means. If I told you America has a president determined to pass large amounts of Keynesian stimulus spending (that's particularly concentrated in impoverished areas), a near-universal health-care plan, and a bill addressing climate change, you'd say liberals had recaptured the White House. Ambitious liberals, even.

But though Obama's program is quite liberal, he doesn't seem to care much how it's achieved. A public option would be nice, but if it's not there, then that's fine, too. Full auction of permits is a good idea, but if most get given away to corporations, then that's how it goes. Infrastructure spending is good, but if tax cuts are the price of passage, then tax cuts there shall be. The best description of the administration's ideology probably came from Rahm Emanuel when he said, "The only nonnegotiable principle here is success."

You could imagine a lot of presidents more dogmatically liberal than Obama, but I wonder whether there are a lot of plausible hypotheticals in which they amass more liberal achievements than Obama. At the executive level, it might be the case that being too liberal is a liability to, well, liberalism. That, Tony Judt would probably say, is why countries need a healthy left.

Photo credit: Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 10, 2009; 9:21 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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Next: A question of emphasis


"The best description of the administration's ideology probably came from Rahm Emanuel when he said, 'The only nonnegotiable principle here is success.'"

I'm sorry, but especially in the context of this article, Emanuel's quote is basically George W. Bush redux. How can you put everything but "success" on the negotiating table, when nobody knows what "success" is anymore? Do you still have health care success without a public option, for example?

Posted by: simpleton1 | December 10, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Obama would have been happy to get much more liberal versions of his major legislative proposals (a bigger stimulus with a larger percentage of spending, a better cap-and-trade bill, health care reform with a strong public option), but the 5 or 6 most conservative Democratic Senators dictate exactly how liberal legislation that actually passes will be and the other Democrats refuse to take advantage of the options available such as reconciliation to get better bills. Obama shouldn't (much) be blamed for the dysfunction of the United States Senate and the corruption and stupidity of a tiny minority of the Democratic caucus in it.

Posted by: redwards95 | December 10, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure your examples of previously-unthinkable liberal accomplishments are really fair. A universal entitlement is pretty liberal; a universal MANDATE is much more ambiguous. If the Dems hadn't taken the market approach first the GOP would have jumped on it as a clear alternative.

But I'm not sure how much this matters. I still believe that Barack Obama is significantly more liberal than his record so far would demonstrate. He's made some very strong agency appointments and his record of Executive Branch action so far is really admirable. But the fact is that he is currently being constrained by the need to hold on to a few Democratic egomaniacs who have been turned into kings by the Senate's supermajority requirements. I have no doubt that we'll see liberal Obama return after the 60 votes slip out of the Dems' grasp next year -- once the Senate is completely marginalized there's no need to keep Lieberman, Nelson, and the rest happy.

Of course the major counterpoint to my view is his staffing choices in the financial and military sectors. And I honestly don't have an answer to that. Maybe he thinks buy-in is more important (or more achievable) than dictation in those areas. But I'd like to see at least a little pushback on the idea that only Republicans can handle financial regulation and defense.

Posted by: NS12345 | December 10, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Wow, this post sure does prove Ross's point.

Universal health care and addressing climate change are not controversial in any other wealthy country. The Conservative parties in Canada and the UK would fight tooth and nail for policies way beyond what the Democrats would want, especially on health care. Keyenesianism-- stimulus spending in a severe recession when monetary policy is no longer effective-- is really not controversial either.

That this wonky centrism, pure pragmatism, simple empiricism, is taken as "liberals taking over the White House" reveals just how peculiar our national dialogue is.

Posted by: eelvisberg | December 10, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

"The first year of the Obama presidency has been a long tutorial on the difference between liberal ends and liberal means."

I love this phrase Ezra. Really boils it down between optics and results. And posturing versus nuts and bolts strategy. I just wish more "progressives" would spend time contemplating the difference between the two.

Posted by: arnold104 | December 10, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

i dont think that the only thing that is non-negotiable for barack obama, is success. i think there is a lot more temperance to the man than that, even if he has surrounded himself with all sorts of influences.
this may sound ridiculous to some...but i think he considers the futures of malia and sasha with every major decision that he makes. i think his family influences affect his agenda, and how he pursues it. we are influenced most deeply by those closest to us.
today, we have a president accepting the nobel peace prize. congress is working on health care reform. the plan to send more troops to afghanistan was done on the basis of lengthy consideration, rather than unfounded evidence and shock and awe.
there are glimmers of hope for the economy.
and a president who is connected to people here and abroad.
and people are engaged.
i think we are in much better shape than we were last december.
president obama is pursuing his agenda and i think we are making progress.

Posted by: jkaren | December 10, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Shorter Ezra: The fact that Obama has an agenda to the right of the moderate Bill Clinton proves he is the real liberal!

Posted by: endaround | December 10, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

americablog ripped you again today!

Posted by: obrier2 | December 10, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

There comes a point where liberal accomplishments are no longer "liberal." I'm not saying Obama has necessarily reached that point yet, but there certainly is a line. The stimulus bill, for whatever flaws it may have had was undeniably liberal. I imagine the same will likely be the case if he passes cap and trade. However, I'm not as convinced about health care. Many of its core elements are borrowed directly from conservative ideas on health care reform. If the Stupak amendment survives pretty much intact in the final bill then it will have the impact of profoundly limiting abortions. Its an undeniably regressive portion of a bill that is not clearly that progressive. The net effect of this bill may not be liberal.

Furthermore, you forgot to mention Afghanistan, which is like saying Bush's presidency could be considered a success if you left out Iraq, Katrina, and the economic collapse. Escalating a war of choice is not liberal and the worst part about it is that this is the one arena in which Obama has a lot of leverage. I can more readily forgive flaws in health care reform or the stimulus as they are really more indicative of a Obama's limited ability to shape the specifics of domestic policy than how liberal he is. On the other hand, there is nothing liberal about his decision to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and divert hundreds of billions (ultimately perhaps over a trillion) to a giant sink hole.

On the one hand liberals shouldn't be surprised given that Obama was hawkish on Afghanistan throughout the campaign, but liberals can certainly be disappointed and certainly have the right to point out that this isn't a liberal policy decision.

Posted by: Matt40 | December 10, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

It's distressing that the left seems to be going increasingly in the nihilistic direction of killing any health care bill that doesn't seem to meet their purity standards. They are the mirror image of the right wing tea baggers. The left didn't win the election, the left doesn't have a governing majority in Congress, so let's do what we can do.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | December 10, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Ezra writes: *****But though Obama's program is quite liberal, he doesn't seem to care much how it's achieved. A public option would be nice, but if it's not there, then that's fine, too. Full auction of permits is a good idea, but if most get given away to corporations, then that's how it goes. Infrastructure spending is good, but if tax cuts are the price of passage, then tax cuts there shall be.*****

That's not my reading of Obama at all.

I think he and his advisers are doing EVERYTHING in their power to dance the delicate dance of health care reform. Health care reform, as we have all been witnessing -- is an absolutely titanic, bitterly difficult, utterly exhausting political struggle. I think the White House quite rightly realized from the getgo that their political capital is quite finite, and there's simply not much that can be accomplished at the same time as health care reform, if they're indeed serious about holding together their fragile coalition (especially during an era of routine use of the filibuster). This has been magnified hugely because of the difficult economy (once upon a time I foolishly supposed that a deep recession -- and the resulting increase in economic insecurity -- would actually make it EASIER to enact health care reform -- boy was I wrong!).

Anyway, I've been predicting, and will repeat it here, that we'll see a more aggressive Obama AFTER he signs a healthcare bill.

Posted by: Jasper99 | December 10, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

The comment you so guilelessly cite from Emanuel is as pure an expression of lack of principle as one could find. He proclaims his lack of real goals, of any sense of right or wrong, and you bow before him. I guess that's how one gets access to his brother, among others.

Posted by: truck1 | December 10, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I have to say that Tony Judt's artical is well to the left of me. The part where he talked privatization was nuts. It true that public goods are services that can't be operated by the private sector, but it hardly follows as Judt seemed to imply that services that can't be operated by the private sector are public goods. Moreover why can't people be expected to seek and accept some work rather than depending on welfare?

Posted by: CraigMcGillivary1 | December 10, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how much the contrast between Obama and LBJ has to do with changes in American politics versus LBJ's long experience and great understanding of how Congress works and what motivates its members.

Posted by: bcbulger | December 10, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

The means and the ends are connected -- the means shape the ends.

In Obama's case, he's never been a capital L liberal. Socially he may be, but on economic and foreign policy he's to the right of his parties political base. Even his opposition to the Iraq War wasn't explained in terms of pacifism; it was based on the notion that there are wars that advance strategic interests, and those that undermine them.

In terms of his economic policy programs, Obama is to the right of Richard Nixon, LBJ, Eisenhower, Truman in several respects. He needs a counter-balance to Summers and Geithner.

Posted by: JPRS | December 10, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

He isn't. You are very welcome.

Posted by: redscott | December 10, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

OK, if you define success as passing a bill.

If you define it as solving a problem, maybe not so much.

Posted by: member5 | December 10, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Here is a link to a Richard Dawkins program uploaded to youtube:

I really wish that people would watch it, read the corresponding book, "The Selfish Gene," and reflect on the benefits of group action (i.e. government action)

Posted by: bcbulger | December 10, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, this is long.

To add to my earlier comment, people do not question their assumptions enough. Too many fail to recognize that rules exist largely because government has put them there and that change does not necessarily mean more government involvement but does mean a change to the rules which may possibly lead to better outcomes.

Some people focus on the rules and not on the results of implementing a given set of rules. This is like the Libertarian who objects to income taxes on principle without considering the evidence of the very different outcomes or systems that would come to result. I think such people base their decision on what they think will happen (i.e. the hard workers will benefit from their labor while the lazy will suffer their just deserts) instead of the more likely reality (i.e. those who luckily benefit from the rules adopted will leverage their lucky wealth in addition to what they have justly earned to gain more wealth and power and influence, benefiting disproportionately from what they accumulate than from what they contribute.)

Rules matter which largely explains why government matters. However, returning to the questioning of assumptions why is it that the government could not be a better procurer or provider of goods and services simply because Reagan calls government the problem?

Think about how much sense deregulation makes. By definition, this is a removal of rules if not by their outright deletion then by lack of enforcement. Results will depend on what the rules were and what the context is. Let's say for argument that the deregulation is supposed to result in voluntary enforcement of the unwritten [or at least unenforced] rules. This is just an invitation to cheat which in turn becomes an incentive to cheat since others can be expected to cheat. This gets to the heart of the Prisoner's Dilemma and the need for government regulation.

This same idea belies the thinking of many efficient market hypothesis advocates. The group to which I refer argue that the market will get it right so we should deregulate since government regulations only distort and get in the way. However, removing these regulations changes the rules of the game and hence changes the game. You cannot come to understand a system with the rules and use that understanding on the "same" system absent the rules. It's amazing that these believers don't recognize how their rejection of the rules for the "efficient" market leads to inefficiency.

Again, I wish people would get closely acquainted with these concepts that appear in economics and evolutionary biology: the Prisoner's Dilemma, the Tragedy of the Commons, how they are related, and the selfish versus the cooperative outcomes each implies. It ought to be mandatory material for every citizen.

Posted by: bcbulger | December 10, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I find it striking that Ross Douthat and those like him could read Tony Judt's extremely clear and well constructed piece and still not see how wrong they are. In their view, it's all about individual responsibility. The responsibility of the group to just outcomes and to making individual responsibility possible be damned.

Posted by: bcbulger | December 10, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Obama campaigned as a centrist and has lived up to his centrist credo. A too small stimulus, a gutted health care bill, continuing the bushies preventive detention, warrantless wiretapping, etc. Liberal, I don't think so. He only looks liberal because the repiglicans have gone off the right wing cliff. Give me a break

Posted by: srw3 | December 10, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I think the use of labels like "liberal" and "conservative" lowers one's IQ slightly. Each use costs a bit more.

I bet it's an asymptotic effect, so with a max reduction in IQ of perhaps 10-15%. Someone like R. Limbaugh has maxed down that -15%.

Since I don't listen to R. Limbaugh, read Politico, etc., I don't even come across the word everyday, in spite of spending 1-2 hours reading dozens of articles/blog posts, etc. most days.

Too bad if this blog begins to deteriorate in this particular way.

The day when we all become only "liberal," "moderate," "conservative," etc. is a day when the nation loses the remaining identity it has.

Posted by: HalHorvath | December 10, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Re-read what HalHorvath wrote above: he's dead right.

"Liberal" and "conservative" are little more than team names used by people who don't want to think about the issues. Rooting for "your" team is fine when you're talking Mets vs. Yankees, but serious political issues merit more thought and less reflexive responses.

Posted by: alex50 | December 10, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised and a little disappointed that Judt's piece hasn't received wider discusson. As a British Jew who spent time on an Israeli during the Sixties and now lives in the US, he's not constrained by the straitjacket of American politics, or beholden to some of its fundamental sillinesses.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | December 10, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

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