How Will Obama's Liberalism Shape America?

Article excerpt

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 Obama's favorite tack was to assail the whole argument between left and right as cynical and outdated.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. …