Obama Uses Centrist Language to Move the Center Leftward
Progressives like myself were hardly thrilled with Pres. Obama’s State of the Union. At first hearing, it sounded like a prayer to the capitalist gods of the Free Market to save us as a nation. (At least the constant claims that the President is a “socialist” should stop.)
But MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who is as progressive as I am, if not more so, used the opening sequence in her Thursday night program to show that Obama used the State of the Union to try to move the center of the country back from the right. Many progressives have responded skeptically, but conservatives have not. They noted immediately what the president was doing. For instance, conservative columnist Cal Thomas claims that Obama used “Reaganesque language” to push a “liberal agenda.” Now, every liberal and every progressive knows full well that Obama has never had a “liberal agenda” but to Thomas anything that is not far right must be “liberal.”
How should we understand the truth of the matter? I want to begin where Dr. Maddow does. At the end of World War II, BOTH major political parties were far more liberal than anything in U.S. politics today. But, beginning in the 1950s, the modern Conservative movement began. It was, from the beginning, well-financed because it serves the interests of the wealthy oligarchy. It uses the Republican party, but the Conservative movement is separate from the Republican party and works to constantly move the debate and the country ever more conservative. Progressives are nowhere near as organized, certainly not as well-financed, and so have seldom been able to move the country leftward though outside events have given a few exceptions.
Consider the following agenda items:
We believe that basic to governmental integrity are unimpeachable ethical standards and irreproachable personal conduct by all people in government. We shall continue our insistence on honesty as an indispensable requirement of public service. We shall continue to root out corruption whenever and wherever it appears.
We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs—expansion of social security—broadened coverage in unemployment insurance —improved housing—and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.
We shall continue vigorously to support the United Nations.
We also propose:
Legislation to enable closer Federal scrutiny of mergers which have a significant or potential monopolistic connotations;
Procedural changes in the antitrust laws to facilitate their enforcement;
Continuance of the vigorous SEC policies which are providing maximum protection to the investor and maximum opportunity for the financing of small business without costly red tape.
Is that from the Communist Manifesto? No. Nor is it from any Democratic politician today–who are all too timid to say things like this. No, this is the Republican Platform of 1956! The document bragged that Republicans had raised the minimum wage, had extended Social Security and expanded its benefits. The Republicans in 1956 promised to increase physical and job safety for workers, to further civil rights, the creation of the Department of the Health, Education, and Welfare. They promised more farm aid!
In 1956 the president was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. The top tax rate was 92% but Eisenhower decided it could not be lowered until the gap between rich and poor had been narrowed! He said that if any party threatened Social Security that party would disappear and never be heard from again. What would Eisenhower think of the nearly constant GOP attacks on Social Security in the last 20 years?
The Conservative movement pushes rightward. We just passed a healthcare reform law that Conservatives have decried as “socialist.” But “Obamacare” (as they like to call it) was first proposed as an alternative to Canadian style universal healthcare (favored by Democrats like Ted Kennedy) by REPUBLICAN Richard M. Nixon. It was again proposed, complete with mandate by Kansas Sen. Robert Dole (R-KS) as an alternative to the public option healthcare plan proposed by Democratic president Bill Clinton. It was finally adopted in Massachusetts by Republican governor Mitt Romney. No one claimed it was unconstitutional, then. No one called it socialist. It was a conservative alternative. But, by the time Democrats enacted that under Obama, the conservative movement had once more moved further right.
The same happens on so many issues. Ronald Reagan is considered THE presidential hero for conservatives and Republicans–and he was the first movement conservative since WWII elected president. (Barry Goldwater was the first movement conservative to run for President, but he was defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide in 1964, with Goldwater winning only 5 states.) But the real Ronald Reagan could never pass the litmus tests of today’s conservative movement. Yes, Reagan was against abortion–but he appointed the mildly pro-choice Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. Yes, he cut taxes, but when his military buildup created a huge deficit, Ronald Reagan enacted the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history (which is why conservative demanded that George H.W. Bush promise no new taxes). Ronald Reagan granted two large amnesties for illegal immigrants living in the U.S., too.
Take another issue–cap-and-trade as a way to combat climate change. This was originally a Republican idea. Democrats wanted to use “green taxes,” i.e., to tax polluters until the polluters found ways to limit their pollution. Republicans wanted a more market-based solution, but by the time Democrats agreed, the Conservative movement made the same Republicans that proposed it pretend that it was a Democratic idea they never heard of before.
George W. Bush campaigned for president on comprehensive immigration reform–but was blocked by his own party from getting it. The DREAM Act, a minor step in immigration reform, was another Republican idea–until the Conservative movement pushed further right.
So, what does one do? Especially when one has a divided Congress? Well, Bill Clinton tried “triangulation,” he moved to the center. But since the center kept moving, Bill Clinton actually enacted legislation that was too conservative to get passed under Reagan and Bush I. If you look for the (moving) center and move there, you can be successful as the public thinks your opponents are too conservative. But the center of debate keeps moving right–until disgust with war, corruption, and an economic fiasco gets people thinking (briefly) in more progressive fashion. But the media are almost all owned now by the Conservative forces and so push back toward the right, demonizing the baby steps taken for 2 years in a (slightly) more progressive direction.
Now, President Obama has a divided Congress. He has no choice but to govern from the center if he is to get anything done at all. But there is more than one way to govern from the center. In his State of the Union, Pres. Obama was decidedly centrist, but in several ways worked to try to push the center back from the right.
Take his call for more investment into infrastructure. He had called for the private sector to create more jobs for us to “win the future,” but private businesses will not make the roads, the high-speed rail, etc. which will help the economic situation for all. That was Obama making a case for a government having a role in the economy. It takes on the constant right-wing attack on “spending” (as if all spending was bad) and “interference.”
Or take Obama’s defense of the DREAM Act and immigration reform (once Republican ideas that are now considered “too liberal,”). He made the defense in economic terms in order to get a wider buy-in for immigration reform. Instead of viewing immigrants as either threat (the current right-wing view) or victims needing sympathy and aid (as too many liberals do), Pres. Obama touted immigrants as valuable resources. To prevent children brought into this country illegally, but who have earned college educations or been in the military–and who have never known another home that the U.S. is not just wrong, but is wasting potential inventors, entrepreneurs, etc.
Likewise, Obama defended the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but then pivoted to asking universities to allow ROTC and military recruiters back on campus. As a Christian pacifist, I hope many universities resist that call. I worry about the militarization of education. But I also know that many Americans resented the banning of the ROTC from many college campuses. By calling for this ban to be lifted (now that DADT is repealed), Obama is working for a “wider buy-in” of the repeal.
Again, Obama agreed with conservatives that many regulations on business is outdated (conservative talking point), but then reminded people that not all regulations are outdated–we want safe food and medicine, safe conditions for workers, etc. This once more makes a case for government involvement–in a way that reminds people that blindly hacking away at “red tape” and cutting “useless government workers” hurts them–without ever using liberal buzz words like “the common good.”
He argued for paying for investments in green energy by ending the taxpayer subsidies for oil companies who are doing just fine without them. This will make the oil lobbies angry, but the public doesn’t like this corporate welfare and the GOP will be hard pressed to defend it.
He agreed with the conservative talking point that education is best fixed at local and state levels, instead of “one size fits all” top-down federal control, but he did this while reminding them that the latest top-down, federal control was the failed and much-hated (and ill-named) “No Child Left Behind” program–which was George W. Bush’s program, enacted by a Republican-controlled Congress. And, knowing that local school districts and states are cash-strapped, Obama promises federal money for local programs that work. He’s already argued for federal investment in better schools to meet our “Sputnik moment.” He compares ignoring the need for better education out of supposed fiscal responsibility to trying to lighten the load of a faltering airplane by tossing out the engine!
He supported the long-held desire of conservatives to cut the corporate tax-rate, but only if coupled with a simplified tax code that closes the many loopholes which allow many big corporations to end up paying no federal taxes at all! If enacted, the lower corporate tax rate will help small businesses, while the closing of the loopholes will result in far more revenue for the government, thus lowering the deficit and making all businesses pay their fair share. If the Republicans try to cut the tax rate without closing the loopholes, not only will Obama veto it, but they will be exposed to the American people as not really serious about the deficit, but only trying to make the rich, richer.
He even tackled the need to cut the military budget, but did it by mentioning that the Secretary of Defense (a Republican and Bush’s last SecDef) had found $78 billion to cut. Now that’s nowhere near enough, but it is the first CUTS proposed by a Defense Secretary in some time and Republicans will have a hard time arguing for weapons, etc. that the Pentagon neither needs nor wants.
The speech made these moves constantly. Now, as a progressive, I found many things lacking in the speech. There was no talk of the role of outsourcing in robbing American jobs, no proposal to fine or tax companies that outsource and reward those who don’t. There was no defense of labor, no call for corporations to show economic patriotism by hiring and paying living wages. No call for a “Made in America” campaign. Nor was there any effort to pivot from the Tucson tragedy to at least mild forms of gun control (or ammo control). There was no call for the Fed to give 5-year zero-interest loans to the states, 45 of 50 are in deep debt, so that police, teachers, and firefighters are not laid off. There was no recognition that climate change presents a MUCH bigger challenge than our “Sputnik moment.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were barely mentioned with adherence to the VERY SLOW withdrawal in Iraq (not completed until 2012!) and the beginning of withdrawal from Afghanistan this July (not to be finished until 2014!)–even though these wars have cost us $3 trillion and counting (plus thousands of ruined lives) and is a huge drain on us. (Progressive anti-war Democrats might make common cause with libertarian-leaning Republicans who also want to end the wars and cut the military budget.)
And I am not sure that this rhetorical strategy will work. The nation loved the speech, but the Republicans in Congress seem determined NOT to get behind his goals, but to see their primary job as “making sure Obama is a one term president” as Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put it.
To really move the center back from the right, we need an organized progressive movement working as hard as the conservative movement does to move it ever more rightward. And others beside the president need to push back at the dominant conservative narrative.
But after two years of simply ignoring “politicking” for policy, the President has achieved several victories but at the price of evermore resistance. He let the Republicans and the Conservative Noise Machine set the narrative and change public opinion against them. Now he’s selling his policies by co-opting conservative language and redefining the center. I hope the effort is successful.