Photo portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson [our last transformational President] in the Oval Office, leaning on a chair, March 10, 1964. (Arnold Newman, White House Press Office via Wikipedia). In public domain.
I don’t say what I have to say about President Barack Obama lightly. But in light of the recent “fiscal cliff deal” and the negotiations process that preceded it, I’ve now become convinced that Obama will be seen as a pretty good president. Period. Obama hasn’t been a unique president, despite his race or relatively humble beginnings. Obama is hardly a great president, either. Nor will Obama be a transformational president. If anything, Obama falls right in line with every American president since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.
Photo of living presidents with then President-Elect Barack Obama in the Oval Office, January 7, 2009. (http://npr.org).
The fact is, Obama is a centrist president, beholden to the military-industrial complex, prison-industrial complex, Wall Street and corporate interests, just like Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 before him. That Obama is Black and intellectual in his approach matters little in terms of actual policies or in the path that he and his administration have taken toward incremental policies and half-baked compromises. Based on some of Obama’s policies, I could even make the argument that the President is a borderline neo-conservative, although I don’t think you can generalize this argument to every policy.
This has been an argument I’ve made in my US History courses over the past couple of years. When I’ve raised the idea that Nixon was a liberal Republican, that President Bill Clinton was a neo-con (see the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 and TANF welfare reform in 1996 as but two examples), and that Obama is hardly a liberal at all, my students have collectively gasped. How dare I say that Nixon was more liberal than Clinton, that Obama is somewhere between a centrist and a neo-con!
But then I’ve worked with them through discussion to talk about the major domestic and foreign policy agendas of the past seven presidents in comparison to our current president. On so many issues, from the US relationship with Israel to the War on Drugs, from welfare reform to financial deregulation, from a re-escalation of the Vietnam War to the surge in Afghanistan, there hasn’t been a nanometer of space of difference in executive branch decision-making. Whether the people in these positions of power have been Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, or Obama and Hillary Clinton.
So I’ve had my students work through parts of Obama’s agenda. The surge and gradual drawing down of US military forces in Afghanistan, in which part of their role is nation-building. “How is that any different from Bush 43?,” I’ve asked. The historic Affordable Care Act, a so-called universal health care bill that fails to cover 20 million Americans and works through complex networks of government subsidies and private insurers, a neo-con plan that failed as an alternative to single-payer under Clinton in 1994. “How is this really a liberal or progressive idea?,” I’ve asked. The continuing War on Drugs, the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the highest rates of deportation of undocumented immigrants ever. “But yeah, Obama’s a liberal!,” I’ve said sarcastically in concluding this discussion with my students.
Some folks, like the reformed neo-con Bruce Bartlett, have compared the Democratic Party of recent years to the liberal Republicans of yesteryear. Bartlett, though, has stopped short of calling Democrats centrist neo-cons, which is in fact a much more apt description. Bartlett also stopped short in time, as he argued that the tipping point for the Democratic Party’s movement from left-of-center to right-of-center began with President Clinton in the 1990s. But that’s incorrect. The tipping point began when the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition of labor unions and blue-collar Whites, Southern whites, Catholics and Blacks fell apart as part of a backlash against President Lyndon Johnson’s support of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty in the late-1960s.
Photo of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library dedication, Simi Valley, CA, November 4, 1991. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times).
Most Americans, though, don’t have the knowledge or luxury of taking a long view of history and their lives in attempting to put Obama in context. The media’s constant coverage of every trumped-up, imagined or real crisis hardly helps matters, either. They assume on behalf of the public the idea that there are two equal and opposite sides to every issue and every argument, which means most journalists failed geometry in high school. As a result, most Americans believe that Obama’s a liberal because the media consistently makes the false claim that all Democrats are liberals and that a Black guy with a Harvard law degree who used to be a community organizer must be a liberal.
How is a budget cutting agenda that puts Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare on the table as entitlements (and not a paid-for weak social safety net) a liberal idea or policy agenda? How is coming out reluctantly in favor of gay marriage some great progressive stance, comparable to President Kennedy’s speech in favor of civil rights in 1963? How is consistently giving into oligarchic conservatives by pushing hard for a meager tax increase on the most privileged members of our nation — the people who benefited the most from 40 years of policies that have greatly increased the gap between rich and poor — part of a liberal strategy? It isn’t and they aren’t.
Obama being three steps to Congress’ left on gay marriage and a tax increase is an incredibly weak counterargument to the fact that he’s a centrist. And a failed one at that, as his centrism has been based on garnering bipartisan support of weak legislation in terms of socioeconomic appropriations and strong legislation in terms of defense and Big Brother-esque laws. Obama has pushed climate change, long-term unemployment and underemployment, social mobility and real education reform either off his presidential agenda or into the hands of the private sector.
Thank you, but no, Obama’s a centrist, not a liberal. If you want to see a liberal policymaker in action, the nearest place to go these days is Ottawa, not Washington.