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Morning Jay: What's So Bad About Obama?

6:00 AM, Jan 27, 2012 • By JAY COST
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In his latest Bloomberg column, Ezra Klein pushes back on the GOP critique of the president. As far as he is concerned, the president is really a pragmatic center-leftist.

 “President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial,” Mitt Romney says. But fear not, because the former governor of Massachusetts “will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense.”

Romney makes it sound as if he’s running against Vladimir Lenin. But what has Barack Obama actually done or proposed to do? He continued the Bush administration’s rescue of the financial system and auto industry. He passed a health-care law modeled on reforms Romney passed in Massachusetts. He passed a financial-regulation bill that erected a protective scaffolding around the banking system, but shied away from fundamentally reshaping it. He wants to extend most, but not all, of the Bush tax cuts. He has insisted that deficit reduction include some tax increases, though he has signaled he is willing to accept as many as three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in increased taxes. He wants to raise the effective tax rates of people making more than a million dollars annually. He wants to invest in infrastructure.

You can disagree with this list without pretending it is radical or somehow inimical to free enterprise. Obama has pursued an ambitious, center-left agenda. Capitalism will survive his efforts to use market-based means to accomplish traditional liberal ends.

From a certain perspective, I think Klein is right: Obama is not “radical,” at least not in the way we usually define the concept. But that actually points to the big the problem with this president and his worldview. The progressive ideology dating back to the turn of the last century, and in which Obama is comfortably situated, was never really about overturning the established order, but rather in co-opting it.

For instance, the Bull Moosers of 1912 wanted to regulate the “great malefactors of wealth,” as TR put it, but they also were happy to keep the protective tariff regime, which was the source of that wealth in the first place. Similarly, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) – the two hallmarks of the First New Deal – were all about grand bargains between government, labor, farmers, and capital owners. The point was to draw all classes to the bargaining table, with the meeting chaired by the progressives, naturally. So it goes for modern-day progressivism. Both Clintoncare and Obamacare did not try to implement “socialized medicine,” but rather strike a grand bargain that would encompass all of the “stakeholders” to manage the nation’s health care. 

So, Klein is also correct in that Obama has not set out to destroy capitalism. He is no socialist in the traditional sense of the word. He is not interested in controlling the means of production, as Marx put it. He’s happy to let commerce and industry remain in private hands, but that does not mean he's a free market advocate in any politically relevant sense of the phrase. He wants the free market to do its thing, so long as the government can socialize an ever-greater amount of the profit, and also take an intimate role in managing the private sector to “socially beneficial” ends.

This view of government has long provoked a very intense, negative reaction from a broad class of Americans. Skepticism of an interventionist government date back to Jefferson and Jackson, who both feared the nexus of big business and big government. Woodrow Wilson designed his “New Freedom” program precisely to combat TR’s “New Nationalism” during the 1912 campaign, but the ever-pragmatic Wilson ended up implementing most of the Bull Moosers' program once in office. It’s oft-forgotten, but FDR’s First New Deal infuriated many establishment Democrats like John Davis (1924 nominee), John Jakob Raskob (former DNC Chair), and Al Smith (1928 nominee). And as soon as the “Solid South” went from being benefit-receivers to benefit-payers in the progressive scheme, they started bolting (with the first revolt coming as early as 1937).

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