Liberalism in retreat: The conservatism of Barack Obama

It may very well be that the legacy of Barack Obama is that he will destroy whatever is left of the liberalism of the Democratic Party. At least this is the conclusion one can reach given his recent budget proposals and his continued advocacy for the use of drone warfare. In so many ways, Obama looks even more conservative than his adversaries on the right.

By now it is common place to assert that the Democrats are the party of liberalism. It is the party of FDR and JFK, of the New Deal and the Great Society, civil rights and taxes, abortion and gay rights, for the rights of the accused and against guns. This is the party that first Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan stereotyped and successfully ran against. These two elections resulted in what was once thought to be a political realignment in American politics as Reagan Democrats and the once solid south moved into the column of the Republican Party. It was barely a generation ago that critics hailed the demise of the Democrats as too liberal. Between 1968 and 1988 Democrats won only one presidential contest, they lost control of the Senate in 1980, and they looked doomed. Throw in the 1994 congressional losses and then again the beatings they took in 2002 and one could have put RIP next to the Democratic Party.

But along came Bill Clinton. He along with the Democratic Leadership Council contended that the party had become too liberal and it needed to move to the center. And it did. Clinton was a pro-death penalty president who signed DOMA, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, welfare reform, and limits on habeas corpus for prisoners. He dramatically moved the Democrats to the center, as the story goes, and the result was that his party again became more electable.

But politics is not static. While Democrats moved to the right, the Republicans shifted even further. First with Bush and then with the TEA Party. The center of American political gravity on many issues moved rightward. And so has Barack Obama.

Initially though, Obama had everyone convinced that he was a liberal. Maybe it was his race, or his appeal to a new generation of voters. But back in 2008 many thought of him as the liberal candidate in the race, at least compared to Senator Clinton. But compared to John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich he was a moderate. That juxtaposition probably helped him in the battle for the Democratic Party nomination, but also his rhetoric at times sound progressive, especially when he talked of health care reform, gay rights, or the rights of workers. His rhetoric sounded progressive, at least in comparison to the Bush era values as he spoke of closing Gitmo and ending the war in Iraq. Even his 2009 inaugural speech trumpeted a liberal theme, but sadly the gap between rhetoric and reality grew.

Obama did call for major expansion of health care reform but he rejected calls for the more liberal single payer system that Senator Ted Kennedy and other liberals wanted. He opted for the Republican solution–Romneycare–the Massachusetts model that the GOP and his 2012 presidential opponent once embraced. Yes Obama also did end the war in Iraq but he also promised to commit more troops to Afghanistan–transforming Bush’s war to his. Additionally, Obama turned his back on many of his supporters. He never supported the Employee Free Choice Act, a reform sought by labor unions to update the Wagner Act, he did not push for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell until halfway through his first term, only getting it by capitulating on an extension of the Bush era tax cuts. His health care reforms capitulated on abortion and reproductive freedoms for women, and he has never really pushed hard on global warming and the environment. Finally, Obama continued the Bush era initiatives to bail out the banks but not the home owners and Dodd-Frank, the major financial reform legislation, hardly will change banking behavior and discourage them from more risking lending in future.

One cannot deny that Obama has accomplished a lot and he deserves praise for all of that. He has faced a hostile Congress, but do not forget that for the first two years he had significant Democratic majorities. But with those majorities he has infuriated many in his party but a horrible set of negotiating skills. He seems to give in, not negotiate.

But now there is a second term. He began his quest by saying he had evolved on gay marriage. He now supported it–an act of bravery when public opinion had already shifted. He says he opposes the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and his administration argued against its constitutionality before the Supreme Court, but his administration still enforces the law, prompting Chief Justice Roberts to exclaim that the President should have the courage of his convictions not to enforce the law if he thinks it is unconstitutional.

Obama’s second inaugural and his 2013 State of the Union speeches again sounded liberal. He hit the themes of gay rights, guns, the environment, and economic justice. Yet once again the gap between rhetoric and performance is wide. Obama ended 2012 by securing tax hikes on the top earners and preserving it for the rest. Yet he let the payroll tax expire, resulting in more of us paying more overall taxes now than before.

Obama continues to pursue economic policies that sound more conservative than liberal. His budget proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare give him little room to negotiate with Republicans. Given his starting position, all he can do is move further to the right. Sequestration was partially Obama’s idea and the percentage of government spending going to discretionary programs is lower now than it has been in a generation. Obama has embraced austerity and deficit reduction as goals, again ideas favored by Republicans. When push comes to shove, don’t be surprised if Obama endorses the Keystone Pipeline as an important jobs initiative for his administration.

But alas, there may even be one place where Republicans are to the left of Obama–drone warfare. In a legal analysis as tortured as the memos drafted by the Bush administration, the Obama administration has endorsed presidential power to use drones in warfare, even up to the point of killing American citizens outside the United States. Such brazen disregard for both domestic and international law must bring a smile to a Dick Cheney (who embraced gay marriage well before Obama).

How anyone can conclude that Obama is a liberal is beyond comprehension. Nixon was more liberal, as was Eisenhower. Obama’s liberal legacy is gone and now the question becomes how much of liberalism will he give away in his remaining second term.

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David Schultz's picture
David Schultz

David Schultz is a professor in the School of Business at Hamline University.