Thursday, January 27, 2011

Obama's Reaganite rag, revisited

The Obama team is floating the "liberal Reagan" theme again, and Time laps it up with an extended analogy that basically just harks back to Obama's floating the comparison himself in the '08 campaign with his notorious musing about how Reagan "changed the trajectory" of American politics. It would be fun to keep a running tab of memes like this that Obama has successfully planted about himself: they include "I have the right temperament to be President" (Fox, April '08) and that he plays a long game (Dec. '10, and in various forms much earlier).

The Reagan motif, for Obama, means channeling and articulating the zeitgeist, being the instrument of a major course correction in American politics.  Obama could not be so vocal about his belief that Reagan accomplished this without acknowledging that to some degree at least, Reagan's assault on big government was justified.  That's what sent Hillary and many Democrats around the bend in the wake of Obama's "change the trajectory" interview.

If I may indulge, I took a dive into this back in March '08. Here's the gist of that post (some of which looks pretty silly today):
How exactly has Obama channeled Reagan? Christopher Caldwell's excellent analysis of What Obama Owes to Reagan sent me back to The Audacity of Hope, in which Caldwell sees "an interest in Reagan that borders on fascination." He's right. Obama not only admires Reagan's political skills, his ability to "change the trajectory" of American politics as he put it in his notorious interview with The Reno Gazette-Journal in January. He also acknowledges the legitimacy of the course-change that Reagan drove and pays tribute to substantial accomplishments.

Obama's homage to some of Reagan's core principles bespeaks his faith in the American electorate. Implicitly, he acknowledges that Americans were right to give Reagan his mandate:
Reagan spoke to America's longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces, but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, person responsibility, optimism, and faith.

That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities. Reagan may have exaggerated the sins of the welfare state, and certainly liberals were right to complain that his domestic policies tilted heavily toward economic elites, with corporate raiders making tidy profits throughout the eighties while unions were busted and the income for the average working stiff flatlined.

Nevertheless, by promising to side with those who worked hard, obeyed the law, cared for their families, and loved their country, Reagan offered Americans a sense of a common purpose that liberals seemed no longer able to muster. And the more his critics carped, the more those critics played into the role he'd written for them--a band of out-of-touch, tax-and-spend, blame-America-first, politically correct elites (Audacity of Hope, 31-32).
Obama treads a delicate line in these tributes. Always, he acknowledges a degree of legitimacy in Reagan's critique and course correction; usually, too, he paints the rhetoric and the policies as exaggerated, deceptively oversimplified, damaging on many fronts. "Fascination" is a good way to describe these ambivalent assessments. But whatever his feelings about Reagan, his portrayal of the liberalism to which Reagan was reacting is unsparing:
In his rhetoric, Reagan tended to exaggerate the degree to which the welfare state had grown over the previous twenty five years. At its peak, the federal budget as a total share of the U.S. economy remained far below the comparable figures in Western Europe, even when you factored in the enormous U.S. defense budget. Still, the conservative revolution that Reagan helped usher in gained traction because Reagan's central insight--that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie--contained a good deal of truth. Just as too many corporate managers, shielded from competition, had stopped delivering value, too many government bureaucracies had stopped asking whether their shareholders (the American taxpayer) and their consumers (the users of government services) were getting their money's worth (Audacity, 156-157).
Arguably, Obama himself is proof that Reagan's chastening of liberal orthodoxy was a net positive for American governance. Obama is running on an unabashedly liberal platform, seeking a "working majority" to accomplish universal healthcare, strong wealth redistribution through the tax code, and ambitious public investment in infrastructure and energy technology. But he filters these goals through a consciousness, reflected in his rhetoric, that liberalism must hold itself to a diet; government must hold itself accountable -- and hold the beneficiaries of its various programs accountable as well.

This awareness, I think, underpins conservatives' warm response to Obama. He is no triangulator. He makes no bones about wanting to move the American center to the left, rather than move the left to the center. His goals are liberal -- to redistribute wealth back toward the center and bottom, and to redistribute risk back toward the community. But he recognizes the need to move in these directions without killing the golden goose. This awareness makes Obama credible when he presents his set of tax cuts and subsidies for the working poor as a matter of restoring "balance" and "fairness" after thirty years of widening income inequality.

Obama's liberalism is neo-, not in the sense of being cramped or defensive, but in its respect for the limits of government action, for the need to maintain incentives for generating wealth, and in its willingness to place responsibility on the individual. When he talks about working with the opposition, refraining from demonizing, acknowledging that they may have a point or two, it's plain that he means it. He has internalized such respect as a habit of mind.
Back to 2011: one irony of the current moment is that while Obama strikes a Reaganesque pose right now, he's also reading from a Clinton manual.  In Obama's '08 narrative, Clinton was the unReagan, the good but not-quite-good-enough father who failed to change the trajectory (in part, Obama sometimes implied, because Clinton did not fully win Americans' trust).    What he did do, however, was balance the goddamn budget after a round of unaffordable Republican tax cuts -- the essential precondition, as we've learned all over, for any enduring realignment toward a more progressive agenda.  Too bad that in between Clinton and Obama -- thanks in part to Clinton's sexual excesses  -- we had another eight-year interval of GOP budget destruction.

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