Friday, January 25, 2013

Obama's Defense of Liberalism

Noam Scheiber argues that Barack Obama has always been a liberal, but it looks as if he is going to use his second term to make an argument for liberalism.  Here is a taste from Scheiber's piece at The New Republic:

The change we started to see in late 2011, when Obama kicked off a series of populist speeches after his failed negotiations with John Boehner, reflects Obama’s belated recognition of this. And that change was on full display today. Pre-2011, Obama would suggest that the need for “a basic measure of security and dignity” was a matter of consensus and then fulminate against the procedural hurtles to realizing it. Since then, he’s been much more aware of the fact that tens of millions of people disagree with what he regards as a commonsense role for government, and he’s been much more focused on defending it. Today he explained that “no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.” He added that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security don’t “sap our initiative,” as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would have it. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Those are simple enough points, but they’re powerful and can’t be made enough. 

Of course, you could argue that there wasn’t much new in Obama’s speech if it reflects an m.o. he adopted well over a year ago. But I disagree. Since his emergence on the national scene, Obama has clung to the Eisenhower-era distinction between campaigning and governing: You make your case during election season, then take down the TV ads and stump speeches when it’s over so you can get on with policymaking. Before today, it was possible to believe Obama still clung to that distinction. Yes, he’d started down this new path in the fall of 2011. But by that point the presidential campaign had effectively begun, so a campaign posture made sense. And yes, he’d kept it up during the recent lame-duck period. But, then, it was easy to see the "fiscal cliff" negotiations as an extension of the presidential campaign.  

An inaugural address is unambiguously different though. It’s the thematic roadmap to a president’s forthcoming time in office. By choosing to start his second term with a case for liberalism, Obama announced that arguing for his worldview isn’t a separate task from governing. It’s central to governing.