Obama still scoffs at the suggestion that he is a socialist largely to delegitimize his opponents. During his address to House Republicans at their retreat in December 2009, Obama ridiculed Republicans for acting as if his health-care scheme were some “Bolshevik plot.” In responding to the “Tea Parties” organized to oppose the expansion of government, Obama has explicitly likened those who describe his policies as socialist to the “birther” conspiracy theorists who foolishly believe he was actually born outside the United States: “There’s some folks who just weren’t sure whether I was born in the United States, whether I was a socialist, right?”Photo Credit: Looking at the Left, "Dissent is the New Racism in Obama’s Post-Racial America."
He reserves for himself the mantle of technocrat, disinterested, pragmatic, pushed to use the powers of government by the failings of his predecessor and the madness of the free market. He is not interested in ideology; he is interested in doing “what works” for the greatest number of Americans (he has often said that his guiding insight to government’s role is the notion that we are all our brothers’ keepers). Indeed, Obama goes further and often insinuates that principled disagreement with his agenda is “ideological” and therefore illegitimate. In a speech on the eve of his inauguration, he proclaimed that “what is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives—from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry.” In other words, to borrow a phrase from Lionel Trilling, ideology is an irritable mental gesture.
Denying that you are an ideologue is not the same thing as proving the point. And certainly Obama’s insistence that ideology is something only his critics suffer from is no defense when stacked against the evidence of his actions. The “pragmatic” Obama is only interested in “what works” as long as “what works” involves a significantly expanded role for government. In this sense, Obama is a practitioner of the Third Way, the governing approach most successfully trumpeted by Blair, who claimed to have found a “third way” that rejected the false premises of both Left and Right and therebylocated a “smarter” approach to expanding government. The powerful appeal of this idea lies in the fact that it sounds as if its adherents have rejected ideological dogmatism and gone beyond those “false choices.” Thus, a leader can both provide health care to 32 million people and save money, or, as Obama likes to say, “bend the cost curve down.” But in not choosing, Obama is choosing. He is choosing the path of government control, which is what the Third Way inevitably does and is intended to do.
Still, the question remains, What do we call Obama’s “social-ism”? John Judis’s formulation—“liberal socialism”—is perfectly serviceable, and so is “social democracy” or, for that matter, simply “progressivism.” My own, perhaps too playful, suggestion would be neosocialism.
The term neoconservative was assigned—and with hostile intent—to a group of diverse thinkers who had grown convinced that the open-ended ambitions of the Great Society were utopian and, ultimately, counterproductive, even harmful. At first, few neoconservatives embraced the label (as late as 1979, Irving Kristol claimed he was the only one to accept the term, “perhaps because, having been named Irving, I am relatively indifferent to baptismal caprice”). But as neoconservatism matured, it did become a distinct approach to domestic politics, one that sought to reign in government excess while pursuing conservative ends within the confines of the welfare state.
In many respects, Barack Obama’s neo-socialism is neoconservatism’s mirror image. Openly committed to ending the Reagan era, Obama is a firm believer in the power of government to extend its scope and grasp far deeper into society. In much the same way that neoconservatives accepted a realistic and limited role for the government, Obama tolerates a limited and realistic role for the market: its wealth is necessary for the continuation and expansion of the welfare state and social justice. While neoconservatism erred on the side of trusting the nongovernmental sphere—mediating institutions like markets, civil society, and the family—neosocialism gives the benefit of the doubt to government. Whereas neoconservatism was inherently skeptical of the ability of social planners to repeal the law of unintended consequences, Obama’s ideal is to leave social policy in their hands and to bemoan the interference of the merely political.
“I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn’t have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed,” he told CBS’s Katie Couric. “But that’s not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people.”
Whereas Ronald Reagan saw the answers to our problems in the private sphere (“in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”), Obama seeks to expand confidence in, and reliance on, government wherever and whenever he can, albeit within the confines of a generally Center-Right nation and the “unfortunate” demands of democracy.
Saturday, May 1, 2010
From Jonah Goldberg, at Commentary: