As he begins his second term, President Obama has enunciated a point of view that might be called liberalism without apologies. It could prove to be a historic shift.
His second inaugural address emphasized the ways Americans have always acted together for the common good, and he said we need to continue that tradition. The terminology has changed. In the era of Theodore Roosevelt it was called progressivism. In the Lyndon Johnson era it was called liberalism. Because conservatives succeeded in tainting the term liberalism, liberals have once again started calling themselves progressives.
But the taint is fading away, and there is a reason.
The conservative revolution associated with President Reagan was many things, but one important strand was a reaction against what Americans saw as a wasteful, heavy-handed welfare state. The ’70s were a time of turmoil when the nation was beset by crime, urban deterioration, racial strife and an array of new agencies, with their new regulatory regimes.
America was beginning to regulate business to protect the environment and to protect the rights of workers. But efforts to build a Great Society under Johnson had exploded into flames, and the lower classes, to some, appeared shiftless and ungrateful.
Reagan successfully associated the nation’s problems with liberalism. Government, he said, was the problem. The liberal movement that began with Franklin Roosevelt ran out of steam under Lyndon Johnson, and President Carter was not able to forestall its demise.
President Clinton perfected the art of presenting liberalism in a conservative framework. He conceded the rhetorical point, saying the era of big government was over. He was not so much an apologetic liberal as a sly one, seeking to maneuver within terms dictated by the conservative establishment.
But as liberalism fell into tatters under Johnson, conservatism fell apart under George W. Bush. Obama’s re-election revealed the many ways that conservatives have ceded the role of governance to liberal/progressives. By vilifying everything having to do with government, they have left the Democrats as the only ones interested in making government work.
The poverty of Republican ideas has been revealed in recent budget negotiations. Since the election, the Republicans have been without a plan, because they have constricted themselves to the tiniest territory of policy options. They have offered no thoughts except to cut government and cut taxes. Our present dilemmas require thinking more creative than that, and Obama has been happy to fill the policy vacuum.
In his address, he said virtually nothing about the deficit. Till now Democrats have had to pay lip service to conservative orthodoxy that the deficit is problem number one. Obama may have been emboldened by the analysis of economist Paul Krugman, whose column last week said that the combination of budget cuts passed in 2011 and tax cuts passed as part of the fiscal cliff bill has put us back on a reasonable fiscal track. Thus, worry about the deficit is not necessary for now.
Obama has a full agenda, and it will require government expenditures. He wants to rebuild the country, which would provide needed economic stimulus and create jobs. He wants to support education, research and steps to confront the climate crisis. He wants to continue the path toward comprehensive health care. On immigration, gay rights and guns, the liberal position is now in the ascendancy.
During his first term Obama was still bound by the liberal’s need to concede rhetorical points to the Republicans, and he constricted himself by seeking to work together with them. They showed themselves to be more into self-immolation than in compromise and cooperation, so he has charted a liberal agenda without apology.
There is always a danger that the Democrats will veer toward bureaucracy-heavy, stultifying, regulatory solutions. But perhaps Obama has learned from history. Certainly, his first term showed he was looking for new ways to be liberal.
Now since the Republicans have shown themselves unwilling or unable to play a constructive role, he has made the liberating choice to describe a liberal agenda without an obligatory bow toward conservative misgivings. On guns, health care, infrastructure, climate, immigration, tax reform and other issues, he will be leading the way.
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