Obama the Conservative
Since no one here has yet seen fit to honor the momentous, history-changing and completely fatuous journalistic landmark known as “The First 100 Days Milestone” of a presidency, let me dip my toe in the water. Or rather, let me cite some others who beat me to the deep end with insights–rather than mere scorecards–that I thought genuinely illuminate the often elusive nature of Obama’s personality, and thereby, his presidency.
First off, mirabile dictu, is L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily that titled its analysis “The 100 days that did not shake the world.” As John Thavis reports for CNS, the Vatican paper says Obama has “not confirmed the Catholic Church’s worst fears about radical policy changes in ethical areas” and says the “the new president has operated with more caution than predicted in most areas, including economics and international relations.”
“On ethical questions, too–which from the time of the electoral campaign have been the subject of strong worries by the Catholic bishops–Obama does not seem to have confirmed the radical innovations that he had discussed,” the paper said.
Closer to home, E.J. Dionne has a very good piece (posted here at TNR) in which he recognizes Obama’s eschewing of labels but argues that he goes beyond and beneath a “whatever works” style of deliberate non-ideology. Dionne invokes Richard Hofstadter’s distinction between intelligence and intellect and argues that Obama combines the two:
Intelligence, Hofstadter argued, is an “unfailingly practical quality” that “works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals.” Intellect, on the other hand, is the mind’s “creative and contemplative side” that “examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.”
But the best piece I’ve read is by the New Yorker‘s George Packer, whose commentary a couple weeks back, “Obamaism,” brilliantly captures what for me–and I think much of the public, judging by the polls–is the real appeal of Obama: namely, that despite all the blur of activity and activism, and the infuriating of the left and even more so of the right, Obama is in fact a true conservative:
What underlies so many of Obama’s decisions is an attachment to the institutions that hold up American society, a desire to make them function better rather than remake them altogether. Allowing the auto industry to die would create social havoc in communities around the country, and anything less than de-facto government control seems inadequate. So the President has risked a good deal of his political capital on the largest federal intervention in a sector of the economy since at least 1952, when President Truman seized the steel industry to avert a strike during wartime…Obama may not see a similar need to put the government in charge of the big banks, but he has also shown that he has no taste for such a disruption of the system—even if it were politically possible, and perhaps even if it were the most direct route back to financial health.
In his budget message to Congress, Obama invoked the value of fairness, but his budget proposals don’t create government programs—such as guaranteed-income measures or large numbers of relief jobs—that would establish equality from the top down. Instead, Obama seems to recognize that nothing has shredded the civic fabric in recent years more than the harsh inequalities of finance capitalism and the market ideology of a generation of American politics. This is not the rigid mentality of an engineer of human souls; it’s the attitude of a community organizer.
It’s also a pretty good description of what used to pass for conservatism—a sense that social relations and institutions are fragile things, and that, while government can’t create wealth or impose equality, at moments like this it has to establish a new equilibrium between individuals and huge economic forces, so that society doesn’t crumble.
Packer goes on to critique–ably I’d say–what modern conservatism has become, and also why the Republicans (and I daresay conservative Catholics) are getting no traction with their over-the-top denunciations of Obama. It just doesn’t fit with perceptions or reality. An NYT story the other day about GOP efforts to find a suitable label to denigrate Obama would have been hilarious if not so insidious. Saul Anuzis, who lost a bid to became national party chairman, said the party gained little traction with the “socialist” tag so he is starting to call Obama’s policies ”economic fascism.”
“We’ve so overused the word ‘socialism’ that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Mr. Anuzis said. “Fascism — everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.”
Maybe so. But they don’t associate that with Obama. No wonder Arlen Specter went to the Democrats, and polls show the number of self-identified Republicans at a low of 21 percent, about half of those who ID as Democrats and independents. The GOP is re-defining what it means to be a minority in America as much as Barack Obama is.