In this thread, Peter Lawler wonders if maybe Obama’s “progressivism isn’t rhetorical (like Wilson wanted) but stealthy.” Now any attempt to abstract a person is going to be of limited utility, but I let’s try this point of view: maybe Obama is, on domestic policy, a mostly unreconstructed 1970s upper middle-class left-liberal who. after decades of defeat (as he sees it), is more focused on accomplishing his goals than venting his opinions (unless he feels it is advantageous to do so.) I think that many of Obama’s moves to the center are best understood in this context. His long-term policy preferences haven’t changed, but he needs to pretend they have shifted (and he might even need to carry out policies he disagrees with) in order to move policy in his direction at all.
Look at health care. His first choice was a government single-payer system. His second choice was Romneycare plus a public option. His third choice was Romneycare plus expanding Medicare to cover people in their fifties. His fourth choice was the Obamacare we got, but all four strategies are just ways of getting to the same endpoint. He was willing to make short-term compromises and mislead the public (if you like your health insurance you can keep it) in order to move policy in the direction of his long-term goals. He may not get there as president, but he will know that he made a huge contribution to shifting the politics of health care to the left.
Even when Obama makes moves to the actual center, he quietly lays the groundwork for a shift back to the left. Obama says he is in favor of the death penalty, but does anyone doubt that a Supreme Court in which Stephen Breyer is the ideologically median Justice will vote to strike down the death penalty? I think Breyer will find that his views on the constitutionality of the death penalty will rapidly evolve if he has one more liberal colleague and I think Obama thinks that too. Obama says he believes in an individual right to keep and bear arms, but if even one of the non-liberal Justices is replaced by an Obama appointee, you can be sure that we will have an anti-Heller and anti-individual right majority on the Supreme Court.
There is a sense that Peter Lawler is right when he called Obama’s SOTU “reactionary.” There are no new New Deals or Great Societies. There is something really old fashioned about Obama’s whole approach to talking about progress. It was considered notable that Obama mentioned Stonewall as part of the march of freedom during his Second Inaugural Address. Stonewall was forty-three years ago. Nothing more recent to go along with it? Is there nothing that would have been out of place on an episode of Maude? He is a transformational progressive from the perspective of 1973.
But don’t underestimate him. Obama’s reactionary defense of the current structure of entitlement programs + far-higher-taxes + tighter government controls on health care spending + single payer health care + a liberal Supreme Court majority would be more transformational (in a bad way) than I want to imagine.