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The Once and Future Liberal

Obama runs as the progressive that he is.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By TOD LINDBERG
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In short, there is a distinct possibility that Obama has decided to go for broke: He will no longer seek to appeal to voters by masking his convictions behind positions carefully tailored to enhance his electability. He will be in 2012 the candidate his liberal supporters always understood him to be by conviction. Rather than the figure he cut in 2008—a candidate almost above partisan politics—the 2012 Obama will do the right thing by his own inner light and by that of his core party constituencies. He will represent, à la Howard Dean in 2004, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” only he will make that appeal not just to Democratic primary voters but in the general election. There will be no post-primary pivot to the center. Obama will run as the progressive he is. He will be, unapologetically, the most liberal Democratic presidential candidate since George McGovern.

Why? This is certainly not the path Bill Clinton pursued to reelection in 1996. Clinton was a “New Democrat” in 1992, not so much beyond partisanship, in the style of Obama 2008, but broadly pitching to the middle. After a leftward lurch in office and an election that wiped out his party’s congressional majorities in 1994, he was a New Democrat again in 1996. He signed legislation liberals in his party hated, ending the welfare entitlement. He cut taxes and balanced the budget. He presented himself as the voice of sweet reason between conservative revolutionaries and the tax-and-spend old guard of his own party.

Obama likewise lurched leftward in the early going and likewise suffered a majority-killing midterm congressional election. But after a couple of pivots to the center late in 2010 and in 2011, notably the extension of the Bush tax cuts and agreement to spending cuts as part of the debt ceiling increase, he set the tone for his reelection bid late last year by turning his back on any serious attempt to reach a long-term budget agreement containing entitlement reform. He has made no attempt to rekindle the post-partisan spirit of the 2008 campaign.

Clinton had a good economy going for him in 1996. Obama does not. Growth is slow; jobs are not coming back; Europe is teetering on the edge of a crisis that could trigger another global recession. And nobody outside his own party seems to be giving him the credit he thinks he deserves for averting economic disaster. In addition to systematically disappointing crossover Republicans, he has lost independents and moderates in large numbers, thanks to the lousy economy and the unpopularity of his signature health care reform. So maybe he has little choice but to build his reelection bid from the base out: Make sure the key Democratic constituencies are happy and motivated, then get independents back by painting the GOP nominee as a right-wing extremist.

And yet it’s hardly clear that the Obama 2012 strategy has been driven by a sense of necessity. On the contrary, it seems plausible that his administration and his campaign expected growth to be increasing more rapidly by now, with better job numbers. Remember Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl commercial, ostensibly on behalf of Chrysler, that “It’s halftime in America”? It was not by accident but in accordance with misplaced expectations that the Obama team was testing the theme “America is back”—before abandoning it on the grounds that, well, America isn’t back. The intended backdrop for this progressive Obama candidacy was the arrival of better times.

Moreover, throughout the Republican primary season, Democrats were pretty thoroughly convinced that Obama’s reelection was in the bag. They saw Romney as unpopular and highly vulnerable, both in terms of background and because of his need to pander to conservatives to get the nomination. It has now begun to dawn on them that they have a bigger problem on their hands than they thought. Romney just spent nine months fending off successive challenges from the right. Only a partisan Democrat could conclude that the impression people took away from that was that Romney must be a conservative extremist himself.

No, the most plausible explanation for the progressive Obama of 2012 is that the man and his campaign concluded that he can cast himself that way and win reelection doing so. There is no need for a centrist turn. And it would be a disservice to the progressive ideals of the Democratic party, as well as a disappointment to liberals, to run a campaign that sought by clever positioning to mask its core convictions in an unnecessary effort to broaden Obama’s appeal.

As for the man himself, he does not lack self-esteem. Now he seems to have found the courage of his convictions. If he wins, he will become the apotheosis of Democratic aspiration, a progressive Democrat running successfully for president as a progressive. If he loses, he can console himself in the conviction that his boldness stands alone among the wreck.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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