Obama's Constitution: The Passive Virtues Writ Large

Article excerpt


There is little doubt today about Barack Obama's political orientation. He is a man of the Left. Yet in the fall of 2008, during the height of the Presidential Election, there were endless debates as to whether Obama counted as a political moderate who understood that it was necessary to govern from the center or whether he a strong left-of-center politician who had mastered the lesson that radical politicians had to present themselves in a way that went against type. The standard political economy story that had some currency at the time was that he would turn out to be a moderate on the grounds that all presidential nominees move to court the median voter. That impression was reinforced by his choice of advisors, many of whom like Lawrence Summers, were retooled Clintonites who were thought to be on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. And most powerfully, that image was reinforced by his evident rhetorical elegance, his nice blue ties and his calm demeanor. Taken together, his presentation of self was an effective means to disarm those critics who insisted that his politics put him, as his voting record suggested, to the left of center of the American legal system.

It is this studied ambiguity that makes Obama so hard to read. It is instructive that in the fall of 2008 many people asked whether Obama counted as a socialist--a question that needed (and still needs) a nuanced answer. Obama did not, and does not believe, in the government ownership over the means of production. What he believes in is the extensive regulation by government of the private firms that are responsible for production, which may be achieved by any and all methods that are available to a President and the Congress: taxes, mandates, regulations, subsidies. The hard question is just how far he is prepared to push on these levers of government power. Well, that debate is over. As one centrist democrat put it to me, ruefully, "we were both wrong. Obama is surely to the left of where I thought he would be. But then again he is to the left of where you thought he would be as well." I am not quite sure that the last half of this observation is true, but without question he has sought to move the ratio of public to private expenditures and influence harder and faster on more issues than any president in recent years. He is in favor of market liberalization on issues like medical marijuana and stem cell research, but otherwise his mindset is quite clear. The defects that we have in the current situation all stem from too little government regulation not from too much. He sees the health care system as one in which private insurance markets have failed; the global warming issue as one in which massive restrictions on emissions are needed; the labor markets as suffering from declining real income because of a want of effective union organization; financial markets as failing because of greedy bankers and weak and divided oversight. And so on down the line.

Sadly his rhetoric has become more strident and less coherent since the Democratic Party lost the Senate seat in Massachusetts, in what counts as one of the most stunning reversals in political fortune ever in the United States. Rather than mend his ways, bashing the banks has become the current fixation, in the hope that the antagonism toward Wall Street will allow him to pick up Republican support for showing that he is made of sterner stuff, even if that means saddling the banks with a set of punitive regulations and taxes, which will only further set back the economy.

But, it will be asked, how deep are his convictions? On this point, the issue is complicated to say the least. It is common knowledge today that Obama now faces deep resentment from the left-wing of the Democratic Party that is, if anything, further to the left than he is. The issue, which at one time was confined to blogs on the Left, has now become grist for the mainstream press. …