In an opinion column, Washington Post editor David Swerdlick argues that former President Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president, was often misunderstood by both the right and the left. Swerdlick notes that Obama’s progressive critics were often turned off by his calm demeanor and gradualist approach to public policy and that those on the right unfairly attacked him as a “radical.”
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What both of them get wrong, the editor says, is that Obama was, at his core, a conservative:
Given the political climate, it’s no surprise to see the party’s base clamoring for something dramatic. But the contrast between Obama’s steady approach and the seeming radicalism of his Democratic heirs can’t just be chalked up to changing times. It’s because the former president, going back at least to his 2004 Senate race, hasn’t really occupied the left side of the ideological spectrum. He wasn’t a Republican, obviously: He never professed a desire to starve the federal government, and he opposed the Iraq War, which the GOP overwhelmingly supported. But to the dismay of many on the left, and to the continuing disbelief of many on the right, Obama never dramatically departed from the approach of presidents who came before him.
There’s a simple reason: Barack Obama is a conservative.
Swerdlick notes that, unlike contemporary Democrats, such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julian Castro, the “former president was skeptical of sweeping change, bullish on markets, sanguine about the use of military force, high on individual responsibility and faithful to a set of old-school personal values.”
How was Obama a conservative?
Swerdlick essentially says that although many of Obama’s policies were not “right-of-center,” the process through which he governed was conservative:
But his constant search for consensus, for ways to bring Blue America and Red America together, sometimes led him to policies that used Republican means to achieve more liberal ends. The underlying concept for his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, with its individual mandate, was devised by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and first implemented at the state level by Mitt Romney, then the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Obama wanted to protect Americans from the effects of a prolonged recession, so he agreed, in one of his defining votes as a senator, to a bailout of banks — and as president, he prioritized recovery over punishing bankers for their role in the financial crisis. In his first inaugural address, he affirmed the power of the free market “to generate wealth and expand freedom.”
The Post editor also claims that Obama’s admirable personal qualities bolster his conservative bonafides:
He embraced respectability politics as a way to signal how conventional it was to have a first family of color: the many Norman Rockwell-worthy photo-ops, such as the 2009 portrait by Annie Leibovitz, a study in wholesome family living; their annual vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, summer haven of the black elite; dialing back his storied “cool,” as when he displayed his stiff dance moves during an appearance on “Ellen,” laying claim to the mantle of the everyman dad.
Albeit, as Swerdlick states, “Obama was a believer in big government” who used his presidency to advance liberal ends. Among them: naming liberal Supreme Court justices, imposing limits on carbon emissions, ordering anti-discrimination protections for LGBT employees, and not enforcing deportation laws—all of this mainly through executive fiat.
This argument has been made—and refuted—before
Variations of the “Obama is a conservative” argument were made in 2008 and early in his presidency. New York Times columnist David Brooks famously claimed in 2009 that “Obama sees himself as a Burkean” and compared him to Edmund Burke, the 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman considered by many as the progenitor of modern conservatism.
However, conservative thought leaders scoffed at Brooks’ claims of Obama’s conservatism, which are not dissimilar from Post’s contention. Jonah Goldberg refuted that for “every sentence fragment the guy [Obama] has offered that could be construed as Burkean… I can think of whole speeches and books that are not.”
Conservative intellectual Yuval Levin argued, “I cannot imagine how anyone observing the Obama administration could think the president a Burkean.”
Adding, “No one said he has to be a Burkean. But those who say he is one are, I think, well off the mark.”
This writer’s perspective
As I’ve publicly noted before, as a young man, I volunteered for President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Since then, my political views have matured. Still, I think the former president has many respectable qualities, especially as a family man, that people on both sides of the aisle can agree are decent and good.
Our country has two noble political traditions—liberalism and conservatism—that have been with us since the founding and are different, in many respects, than their variations elsewhere. President Obama fits squarely within the former and the tradition of Thomas Paine—albeit, arguably with a lower-case ‘c’ conservative temperament and calm demeanor.
Yes, he is certainly more moderate and gradual in matters of public policy than many of today’s leading Democrats, but that doesn’t make him a conservative.