The Myth of a Moderate Obama

By Merry, Robert W. | The National Interest, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Myth of a Moderate Obama


Merry, Robert W., The National Interest


The greatest myth in American politics today is the view, perpetrated by the Democratic Left and elements of the news media, that Barack Obama is a political moderate. In truth he represents an ideology that is barely within the American mainstream as understood over two and a quarter centuries of political experience. Indeed, the crisis of American politics in our time is a crisis of political deadlock, and it is a deadlock born largely of the president's resolve to push an agenda for which he has no clear national consensus.

That agenda turns on a number of pivots related mostly to the size and role of government and its level of intrusiveness into the lives of Americans. If Obama has his way through the remainder of his presidency, and he thoroughly intends to, he will leave behind an American polity very different from the one he inherited. But, aided and abetted by news-media acolytes, he has managed to finesse his true domestic intentions. And his intentions, given the political strife they unleash and the threat to fiscal soundness they pose, could seriously undermine America's standing in the world.

Throughout America's political history a fundamental fault line has divided those who wish to enhance and aggrandize the power of government and those who fear the abuse of unchecked governmental prerogative. Every citizen with a political consciousness stands on one side or the other of that divide. Those who want more power invested in government are liberals; those who don't are conservatives. Thus can one determine the fundamental political outlook of his fellow citizens though this one litmus test.

But within the contingent on the liberal side of the fault line can be seen wide variations in the extent to which particular politicians wish to expand and empower government. Some--Bill Clinton, for instance--have been content to operate largely within the power interrelationships they inherited. Others--including Obama--want to infuse government with powers and prerogatives far beyond their previous scope.

In our history, the great opponents of governmental aggrandizement have been Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. Often citing the Constitution, they fought their adversaries' efforts to expand governmental power and activity. In the Republic's early decades, this effort was highly successful. Jefferson pummeled Alexander Hamilton's political machine, and his opposition to the Hamilton philosophy, carried through by his two successors (James Madison and James Monroe), essentially killed Hamilton's Federalist Party. Jackson and Polk held at bay the "American System" of Henry Clay, and each in turn thwarted Clay's presidential ambitions in the 1832 and 1844 elections. Clay's Whig Party, that era's big-government institution, brought forth only two elected presidents (both army generals) during its quarter century of existence.

A century later, Coolidge forged a limited-government philosophy into a popular governing salient as he cleaned up the mess left by Woodrow Wilson--who, in taking the country into World War I, greatly expanded governmental authority, bruised the nation's political sensibilities through unprecedented federal intrusiveness and ruined the economy. Half a century later, Reagan sought to reverse long decades of steady governmental growth set in motion with powerful force by Franklin Roosevelt and pushed further by Lyndon Johnson.

These presidents shared a commitment to low taxes, small government, hard money and strict construction of the Constitution. Jefferson eliminated internal taxes, cut the size of government and reduced the national debt. Jackson reduced tariff rates, actually paid off the national debt (for the first and last time), and vetoed legislation designed to expand the scope of government. Polk cut tariff rates further and established an "independent treasury" designed to maintain currency stability.

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