Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m sceptical of President Barack Obama’s willingness to use the power given to him in November. After 20 innocent schoolchildren were massacred a few miles from where I write, the American people appear willing to support restrictions on what has been for years unrestricted access to firearms. But if we are going to see any meaningful new gun-control legislation, we must first see a major congressional push from the White House, not just an executive order to crack down on existing laws. Sadly, Obama’s past actions suggest he’d prefer not to.
Consider the “fiscal cliff” deal. Obama had the advantage. He won reelection vowing to raise taxes. Vice President Joe Biden blasted Republican challenger Mitt Romney for threatening to cut Social Security and Medicare. All the president had to do was allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire and then, this year, challenge Republicans not to support a tax cut for 98 percent of voters. House Speaker John Boehner lost control of his caucus. Obama was poised for the coup de grâce. Then he decided to be Mr Nice-and-Reasonable.
Not only did Obama leave millions on the table by raising the tax threshold on top earners from $250,000 to $450,000 (for married couples) but now, as we approach the new battle over the US debt ceiling, he’s likely to trade revenues for spending cuts, which means cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which is what most Americans don’t want. Social insurance programmes have nothing to do with the ballooning of the national debt. George W Bush, the Republicans and the Great Recession did that.
It’s true that Obama won another extension of unemployment benefits in exchange for raising the tax threshold, and millions of Americans are depending on those. But he could have demanded more jobless insurance while bargaining over a middle-class tax-cut deal that should have happened but didn’t. Why did Obama compromise?
Three theories of Obama
The first theory puts Obama in a historical context. Compared to past chief executives, Obama is most similar to the now-extinct species of liberal Republican. The second theory puts the Democrats in an international context. Compared to left-of-centre political parties in other rich countries, they are actually a conservative party (at least the leadership is; backbenchers can be and often are progressive).
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When Obama says he wants to address the debt in a balanced and responsible way, with a sensible mix of revenues and spending cuts, he means it, because he really is a fiscal conservative. Republicans are so far to the right – not just the fringe, but the GOP’s core – that it’s very hard to see where Obama stands historically. If we paid attention, though, we’d see that he’s saying pretty much the same thing Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush said back in the 1980s.
The third theory is mine and it’s speculative. It puts Obama in an ideological context, and has to do with the tendency among Democrats to avoid obvious displays of power. Bottom line: They are okay with using power as long as they feel good about using it, which depends on whether conservatives lose or pout or cry. For this reason, Obama is likely to issue executive orders on guns rather than risk a bloody battle with House Republicans over gun regulation.
Back to Obama. I suspect he believes there is a solution to every problem independent of human agency. Issues can be resolved if we set aside our self-interests. Self-interest does not define and shape the political landscape as much as it does contaminate and corrupt it.
This worldview is in keeping with the values, norms and expectations of the American professional elite, members of which maintain faith in the power of technology and expertise to solve the world’s problems because technology and expertise played such formative roles in their own lives. Politics, therefore, is not a process by which power is used to achieve ideological objectives but an exercise in know-how, consensus and, above all else, reasonableness.
So it seems Obama is essentially a textbook liberal technocrat of the sort that emerged after the Second World War. In the beginning of that era, liberalism had so homogenised the political landscape that expressions of ideology – from (real) socialists on the left to conservatives on the right – were thought to be a waste of time. Better to propose small technical fixes to the status quo than arouse arguments long settled by the New Deal. The postwar boom had spread prosperity so widely, moreover, that many felt Marx’s dream of a classless society had come true. Sociologist Daniel Bell echoed this in the title of his classic book, 1960’s The End of Ideology.
In reality, Marx’s dream was still a dream, minorities were second-class citizens, and women were treated like doormats, as they say. And the end of ideology was an illusion advanced by the professional elite, because they believed their values had become, or should become, the values of everyone else. Hence, the values of the elite were normal, reasonable and valid while everyone else’s were crazy, crass or illegitimate. During the health care debate, for instance, Obama dropped a plan to implement Medicare-for-all and instead took up a Republican plan (ie, “Obamacare”). Liberals were furious, but his spokesman said Obama’s critics were out of touch. Compared to the delusions of the “professional left”, Obama was a “realist”.
No ideology is the wrong ideology
It is often said that ideology is the reason nothing gets done in Washington. There’s too much ideology, we are told, especially from the Republicans. If politicians from both parties really cared about their country, they’d set aside ideological differences and get to work writing laws and policy that benefit all Americans.
That’s right but not for reasons you might expect.
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Republicans are nakedly and insanely ideological but at least we know what that ideology is (for the most part). The same cannot be said of Democrats, and the reason for that is the Democrats don’t want to appear to be ideologically driven. To use power would be to act ideologically, which would mean Democrats would be acting like Republicans. More significantly, it would mean violating the ideology of the Democrat elite to behave as if they had no ideology.
Therefore, Washington’s real problem isn’t that there’s too much ideology. The problem, as least from a lefty perspective, is that the Democratic elite’s ideology of no-ideology is the wrong ideology.
Americans gave Obama the win over Mitt Romney by 5 million votes. That’s more than most presidents have received in the past 50 years. Voters said raise taxes on the rich, don’t touch Social Security or Medicare, and for the love of God, create more good jobs.
Now, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, more Americans are demanding more responsibility from gun-makers and gun-owners. Now is the time for the president to advance an ideology that demands an activist government make a difference in our lives.
Yet Obama is about to enter a showdown with hostile Congressional Republicans and the National Rifle Association believing the best way to beat the most extreme ideological faction of the right-wing establishment is by appearing reasonable and ideologically neutral.
He’s wrong, but he’s not going to suffer from being wrong. He’s going to look like Mr Nice-and-Reasonable again. The rest of us are going to suffer. We need a president willing to use power, but given what we have seen, that may be more than this president is capable of.
John Stoehr’s writing has appeared in American Prospect, Reuters, the Guardian, Dissent, the New York Daily News and The Forward. He is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman and a columnist for the Mint Press News.