How Will Obama's Liberalism Shape America?

By Kesler, Charles R | The Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 2009 | Go to article overview

How Will Obama's Liberalism Shape America?


Kesler, Charles R, The Christian Science Monitor


Despite all his efforts to transcend partisanship, President Barack Obama is demonstrably a liberal. But what kind of liberal is he? And what does his brand of liberalism augur for America?

Even in the Democratic primaries, he shunned the "liberal" label. (Hillary Clinton did, too, preferring to be called a progressive.) Mr. Obama's favorite tack was to assail the whole argument between left and right as cynical and outdated. In its place he offered a pragmatic, hopeful, allegedly nonideological way forward.

On Election Day, his "working majority for change" turned out for him and the Democratic Party. Since then, Obama has tried to live up to his inaugural pledge to put an end to "the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics." He has emphasized national unity and invoked the Founding Fathers. He met with congressional Republicans, and dined with conservative commentators at George Will's home.

Yet how nonideological can a politician be who was recognized by the National Journal as the most liberal-voting senator in 2007? Almost his first act as president was to issue executive orders repealing the policies of his Republican predecessor. Obama's healthcare and foreign-policy ideas are standard liberal issue.

His stimulus bill, meanwhile, did not get a single Republican vote in the House, and won't get many in the Senate. The problem is that the bill stimulates Democratic constituency groups - government employees, unions, community organizers - more obviously than it does the economy.

Obama's "new politics for a new time" looks increasingly familiar - "pork still, with but a little change of sauce," to quote Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention. But that doesn't mean that this president's liberalism will not be interesting. Indeed, he has endeavored to do no less than complete and perfect the grand liberal project begun a century ago.

Three waves of liberalism

Modern liberalism came to America in three waves, and it's useful to think of Obama in this light.

The progressives of the early 20th century were the original liberals, developing the essential tenets of liberalism as a political doctrine. Woodrow Wilson and others argued that the Constitution was an 18th-century document, based on 18th-century notions of rights. While suited to its day, they said, it was now painfully inadequate unless interpreted in a vital new spirit.

This spirit was Darwinian and evolutionary, turning Hamilton's "limited Constitution" into a "living Constitution" that must be able to adapt its structure and function to meet the latest social and economic challenges. To guide this evolution, to organize society's march into the future, presidents had to cease being merely constitutional officers and become dynamic leaders of popular opinion.

Obama accepts all the major elements of this evolutionary approach to the Constitution and American government. As he wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," the Constitution "is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever- changing world."

Likewise, in his inaugural address he declared, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...."

This emphasis on what "works" is his nod to pragmatism, which he implies is almost the opposite of ideological liberalism. In fact, however, such pragmatism is part of liberalism.

What "works," after all, depends on what you think government's purpose is supposed to be. Pragmatism tries to distract us from those ultimate questions, while assuming liberal answers to them. Thus Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal promised "bold, persistent experimentation." Obama's domestic agenda betrays the same eagerness.

Liberalism's second stage was economic.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

How Will Obama's Liberalism Shape America?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.