A Man of the Left

Democrats should stop calling President Obama a turncoat—his policies are pretty liberal.

Democrats don't seem to be in much of a holiday mood. Instead of displaying a festive spirit, liberals are spluttering with rage. But they aren't attacking their traditional foes on the Right. Instead, they're targeting their nominal standard-bearer, President Barack Obama.

Usually it takes two terms for a party's base to turn on its president. As his second term progressed, conservatives began to aim their rhetorical firepower at George W. Bush. George F. Will denounced Bush as a Wilsonian. Bruce Bartlett wrote an entire book calling Bush an imposter, a pretend conservative. Others piled on as well. By the end of Bush's term, conservatives were apoplectic about his free-spending ways. The ultimate insult was Bush's endorsement of bailing out Wall Street once the financial crash hit in the fall of 2008.

Liberals, however, move faster than conservatives in crying betrayal. Thus, according to John R. MacArthur in the Huffington Post:

There was already ample evidence of Obama's feeble commitment to peace, progress and justice. Ever since he started fundraising for his presidential campaign, it's been clear that the principal change in the offing was skin tone and slogans. One only needed to read "The Audacity of Hope" to see how thoroughly Obama was enmeshed in the neo-liberal orthodoxies of the Robert Rubin-Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. Obama's impeccably establishment party credentials -- that is, his fealty to the Democratic leadership of Chicago and Capitol Hill -- practically guaranteed that he would hew to the status quo when forced to choose.

Garry Wills is blogging at the New York Review of Books to express his unhappiness with Obama for ordering troop increases for Afghanistan-"betrayal." Dana Milbank reports that some on the Left such as Robert Borosage are linking up with tea party activists to decry Obama's push to confirm Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke for a second term. Obama's sins are many-he hasn't closed Guantánamo, he hasn't pulled out of Iraq. Howard Dean is attacking Obama on health care, while White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs calls Dean "irrational." He is. Probably always has been. But that's no news. Ever since his scream in Iowa in 2004, it's been obvious that Dean is a little dizzy.

But what about Obama? Is the hue and cry driving him nuts? I doubt it. In fact, does the White House actually welcome liberals piling on to depict Obama as an imposter, a pretend conservative? After all, Obama has devoted inordinate amounts of time to dispelling the notion that he is a man of the Left. You know the line-the Saul Alinsky disciple, Bill Ayers Weatherman-loving, Jeremiah Wright-goddamn-America president. Having the Left pile on, then, could be the best thing that ever happened to Obama.

The weird part about it, however, is that Obama is pursuing fairly liberal policies. For one thing, he's on the verge of cracking a deal with Russia, as the New York Times' Peter Baker reports, to cut strategic nuclear arsenals by at least one quarter. Obama has also called for a nuclear-free world. This is the obverse of George W. Bush, who abrogated, unilaterally, the ABM Treaty and wanted to move ahead with strategic missile defense, whether or not it really worked.

In foreign affairs, he's also pushing, in Copenhagen, for a global-warming accord. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that America will contribute to $100 billion a year to assist poor nations that face severe changes in the climate. Obama has also been pushing for more stringent environmental standards inside America.

Then there's health care. Sure, Obama may not be able to create a public option. Maybe he never really wanted one, as some on the Left surmise. But any health care bill is a big step forward from the Democratic perspective. Obama is not wrong when he tells Democratic Senators that passage of a health-care bill would be the biggest accomplishment since the establishment of Social Security.

There's also the matter of the war in Afghanistan. Once again, Obama isn't exactly abandoning liberalism. Instead, as David Brooks has correctly noted, Obama is behaving like a cold war liberal. He isn't calling for a crusade in Afghanistan. But he is emphasizing that enemies are lurking out there in the wider world and that he believes America must confront them. Obama may well make a surprise visit to either Iraq or Afghanistan to visit American troops over Christmas.

For Republicans, it's a Christmas gift of Christmas gifts to watch the Left assail Obama for his alleged transgressions. Perhaps liberals and progressives will stay at home during the 2010 election to punish him. But what could position Obama better for reelection than if he had a Republican Congress to run against in 2012?


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.