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Progressive? liberal? socialist? Where is Obama coming from?

Obama’s second inaugural seems to have reinforced the narrative that he’s a believer in big government. Here’s why we should be sceptical about that.

Journalists and others who think of themselves engaged in the search for truth like to listen to both sides of a story, and they develop a habit of thinking that anything both sides tell them must be true. Sometimes that works, but at other times it can lead you powerfully astray.

This reflection is prompted by Barack Obama’s second inauguration, and the narrative from both sides – always present at some level, but now apparently given a new lease of life – that Obama is, if not actually a socialist, a “progressive”, a believer in a large and expanding role of government.

That conclusion suits the interests of pundits on both left and right. For the right, Obama is a target of fear and loathing, for reasons that range from the simply partisan to the deeply pathological, so “socialist” or some near equivalent is a natural charge for them to make. For the left, Obama is recognised as “one of them” (again for a complex of reasons, some of which I’ll come to shortly), and since most left-wingers still have an emotional if not rational attachment to big government, they bring him within the same tent.

Trouble is, I don’t think the conclusion is true. Nothing in Obama’s record suggests to me that he believes in socialism in anything like the traditional sense, or that he has ambitions to expand the scope of government. Here he is, for example, in this morning’s inaugural address (read the whole thing here –  it’s very good):

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.  Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.

Not the words of a socialist in my book. It’s true that he goes on to talk about the need for collective action in education and infrastructure and research, but there is no suggestion there of a new or extended role for government. He also praises equality of opportunity and defends the basic safety net functions of the welfare system, but these again are thoroughly mainstream views.

Yet Tom Switzer, for example, in yesterday’s Age, boldly asserts that “the ‘transformation’ Obama himself has envisaged is a return to the pre-Reagan era of government expansion,” and that his “agenda is amounting to the most radical ideological change in generations.” Try as I might, I’m unable to find any evidence for these propositions.

Switzer refers to Obama’s national healthcare reform, but neglects to mention that by the standards of the pre-Reagan Democratic Party it’s a highly conservative package, modelled as it was on the plan put forward by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and pioneered in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney himself. It may or may not be a good solution to America’s health care woes, but it’s a long way from socialism.

I think what has happened here is that the right have spent so long telling themselves that “liberal” in American usage means “supportive of big government” that they no longer question it. But it’s a half-truth. While most American liberals have indeed retained a naive faith in state power, the core of their beliefs is mostly elsewhere, in issues that go beyond economics, and that’s where they identify with Obama.

Hence Jon Chait, who praises Obama’s speech as “progressive”, makes no mention of increased regulations or nationalisation or economic planning, but talks about his defence of existing welfare programs, his promise to address climate change and his support for gay rights. And Chris Cillizza, who claims the president finally “became the progressive leader that many liberals thought they were getting”, ends by distilling Obama’s agenda into climate change, immigration reform and gun control – none of them economic issues at all.

Switzer himself includes the following passage: “Meanwhile, the so-called Millennials – those aged between 18 and 29 – are far more progressive on drug reform, gun control, abortion rights and same-sex issues than their parents. They also take a more dovish view on foreign policy.” That’s four out of five issues that involve less government intervention rather than more. So tell us again how that supports an agenda of government expansion?

I’m not claiming that Obama is some sort of small-government ideologue. When it comes to economics, he’s very much a pragmatist. But he’s also a “liberal” in the only sense that matters: sceptical about power, and committed to human freedom and equality.

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