Thursday, December 25, 2008

Obama: bipartisan historian, liberal leader

Commemorating the Financial Times' choice of Obama as Person of the Year, Edward Luce works overtime to avoid the adulation to which many publications have succumbed. But his extended "who is Barack Obama?" meditation manufactures mystery where none exists.

Asserting that Obama is "claimed by liberals as a liberal, centrists as a centrist and moderate Republicans as a genuinely bipartisan figure," Luce provides disproportionate space to political rivals and ideological foes who wilfully misunderstand the terms in which Obama has called for bipartisanship and wilfully ignore the detailed policy program he has outlined over the course of two years.

Obama is bipartisan only insofar as he acknowledges that "the other side may sometimes have a point," a gesture he fleshes out chiefly by acknowledging (e.g., in The Audacity of Hope) that Reagan tapped some sources of genuine discontent in the electorate -- mainly a sense that government had grown bloated and unaccountable. He is centrist only insofar as he positions a strong swing to the left -- after thirty years of Reaganism -- as a restoration of balance, of fairness, of commitment to "shared prosperity." He is postpartisan in the sense that he has called for new levels of accountability and outcomes assessment as he readies a government more activist than any since the Great Society.

But his policy proposals -- even as they existed before the world financial crisis entered its most acute phase this fall -- advance an unambigously and unapologetically liberal agenda: major new investment in healthcare, alternative energy, various wage supplements and tax breaks for the working poor, and higher taxes (now perhaps postponed during acute recession) for the wealthy. He's been no less specific on the foreign policy front about withdrawing combat troops from Iraq and beefing up efforts on multiple fronts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama's bipartisanship is not pure blather, but neither does it suggest any hesitancy about the kind of redistribution that McCain attacked late in the campaign. Among Obama's core ambitions are to roll back income inequality and The Great Risk Shift that has steadily eroded middle class security over the past thirty years. The trick of his bipartisanship lies in his use of history. His conservatism, such as it is, reaches mainly into the past, in that he acknowledges that conservative insights have had their day -- excessive taxes can choke off growth, government antipoverty spending can be ineffective, some prominent Democrats have seemed to be "against all wars" instead of merely against "dumb wars." But his liberalism is for today. In the fierce urgency of now, he has convinced the nation that it's swung too far right -- and he has already moved the center left.

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