By Walter Shapiro
Is Barack Obama a liberal?
That question might have aroused spirited debate, especially among Democrats, during the president’s vague-is-in-vogue re-election campaign. But since the polls closed on Nov. 6, President Obama has undeniably positioned himself to the left of Candidate Obama.
Amid the national grieving over the Sandy Hook shootings, Obama suddenly found the gumption to stare down the NRA and put gun control back on the national agenda. His inaugural address will be remembered for the stirring endorsement of gay rights and the sudden rediscovery of climate change. Then before the inaugural glow wore off, the Pentagon announced that it would drop its ban on women in combat. And immigration reform—another explosive topic—is likely to receive a star turn in the upcoming State of the Union address.
But before we dust off right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza’s absurd claim that Obama is really a Kenyan socialist, let’s look more closely at the president’s sudden liberal fervor.
Make no mistake, Obama is indeed a transformational 21st-century leader when it comes to any issue that touches on individual rights and equality. He reflects the end of the white-bread politics that elected both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to two terms. Rather than defying the demographic and attitudinal shifts that produced the America of 2013, Obama embodies them.
Some of his liberal statements and actions are undoubtedly payback to the electoral coalition that gave the president a second term despite the stagnant economy. When the first wave of Obama White House memoirs are published, it will be fascinating to read about the internal debates over the gay-rights portion of the inaugural address. But maybe, in reality, there was little dissent. Maybe Obama and his top advisers simply understood that it was time.
Any discussion of Obama’s newly expressed passion for gun control has to begin with the fact that this Chicago-shaped politician is our first urban president since John Kennedy. Unlike, say, Bill Clinton, Obama never came from a place where guns are equated with hunting rather than violent shootouts. Remember, during the 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Obama in a private fundraiser derided rural voters who “cling to guns or religion.”
When it comes to regulating guns, political geography matters. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be the nation’s most zealous proponent of gun control, but it is hard to describe this billionaire plutocrat, who endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2004, as a dangerous left-winger.
Immigration reform is another issue with a bipartisan pedigree. The plan that Obama is likely to highlight in his State of the Union address will bear a close resemblance to the legislation that John McCain and Ted Kennedy introduced in 2005 with the blessing of George W. Bush and Karl Rove. It is hard to describe the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has consistently backed immigration reform, as a hotbed of left-wingers.
Painting an ideological portrait of any incumbent president is tricky since the subject keeps moving rather than holding a fixed position. All presidencies are filled with contradictions: Ronald Reagan raised taxes; Bush dramatically expanded the social safety net by adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare; and Obama, for a while, dramatically increased troop levels in Afghanistan.
Even now, there is a zigzag quality to Obama’s foreign policy. In his inaugural address, the president declared, “A decade of war is now ending.” But not the vastly expanded drone attacks, which have become Obama’s favored way of battling terrorists. To the consternation of liberals, Obama has refused to make public the legal justification for this airborne war conducted by robots.
The president’s economic orientation can be equally confounding. In an interview after the election, Obama claimed, “My policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.” Of course, this contention is self-servingly hyperbolic. But Obama’s words do underscore how the political pendulum on economic issues (but decidedly not on social issues) has moved to the right in the past three decades.
How liberal is a president who signed the “fiscal cliff” legislation that made permanent the Bush tax cuts for roughly 99 percent of Americans? How liberal is a president who at various points in his budget negotiations with the Republicans has toyed with raising the eligibility age for Medicare and cutting back the inflation adjustment for Social Security? How liberal is a president who allowed the Wall Street masterminds behind the economic collapse to go unpunished for their flagrant misdeeds?
Even the big-government complexity of Obamacare was created in large measure because the president refused to endorse the liberal cause of a single-payer system like Medicare. And while not beating the drums for the president’s claim to be a moderate Republican, didn’t a Massachusetts governor named Mitt Romney enact an analogous health-care plan?
The point is that an inaugural address and a few post-election gestures do not, by themselves, define who Obama is as a political leader. So far the liberalism of Obama in the personal sphere has been tempered by the centrism of Obama in the economic and foreign-policy realm.
This ideological blurriness comes with the keys to the Oval Office. To steal a line from Walt Whitman, Obama can rightly say, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
By Walter Shapiro