The Magazine

He's No Ronald Reagan

Obama's bait-and-switch agenda.

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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To be sure, there could be little doubt that Barack Obama was a partisan and progressive Democrat. He explicitly defined himself as a progressive in his 2006 bestseller, The Audacity of Hope, and his voting record in the Illinois State Senate and during his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate was decidedly left-liberal.

But in The Audacity of Hope, where he elaborates his understanding of constitutional principles and contemporary politics, and in his highest-profile speeches, he presented himself also as a moderate, one who understands that politics is the art of the possible, that principles must be applied with a sense of proportion, and that progressives have blind spots and conservatives sometimes speak the political truth.

In the electrifying keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention through which he introduced himself to the nation and launched himself toward the White House, Obama deftly blended progressive and moderate notes, declaring that "people don't expect government to solve all their problems," but they do expect it to "make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all." He endorsed John Kerry's belief "in an America where all Americans can afford the same health coverage our politicians in Washington have for themselves." But he said nothing about government-run insurance. And he offered an eloquent appreciation of the unity that underlies competing perspectives on morality and politics in America, affirming that "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America."

In his 2008 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, Obama highlighted the need for America to be more decent, generous, and compassionate. Hinting at the scope of his progressive ambitions, he declared that "now is not the time for small plans." But his promise of "affordable, accessible health care for every single American" was not accompanied by any mention of the massive government intervention in the economy that he has sought to deliver. By keeping his big plans for health care brief and vague and embedding them in a speech that celebrated individual freedom, hard work, personal sacrifice, and the opportunity, entrepreneurship, innovation, and growth that free markets bring, Obama, moreover, encouraged a rapt nation to think that any big plan for health care reform that he might back would give the market its due and reflect bipartisan ideas and support.

Then in his Inaugural Address six months ago, Obama again invoked "big plans." But he modestly limited himself to calling for raising health care's quality and lowering its costs. And again he honored conservative sensibilities and indicated an inclination to balance competing considerations by praising the American commitment to individual freedom and noting that the market's "power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched."

In short, Obama's most carefully calculated words gave reason to believe that the candidate of hope and change, who proclaimed his intention to transcend partisanship, would seek health care reform that proceeded pragmatically, respecting market forces and building consensus. His most watched speeches certainly provided cause to discount any suggestion that he would exploit a severe recession to centralize government control of nearly one-fifth of the American economy or that he would support health care legislation that rushes to expand coverage while neglecting the impact of such legislation on health care quality and costs.

Recently, the Democratic party-appointed head of the Congressional Budget Office created a furor by testifying to Congress that Obama's big plans for health care reform will increase costs and may prove unsustainable. His assessment, however, was incomplete because it did not take into account the costs to democratic self-government of the cynicism bred and the trust eroded by a president who increasingly appears to have deliberately obscured the principles and policies according to which he intended to govern.

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.