Obama As Conservative President

Bruce Bartlett* looks at Barack Obama and sees Richard Nixon:

Thus Obama took office under roughly the same political and economic circumstances that Nixon did in 1968 except in a mirror opposite way. Instead of being forced to manage a slew of new liberal spending programs, as Nixon did, Obama had to cope with a revenue structure that had been decimated by Republicans.

Liberals hoped that Obama would overturn conservative policies and launch a new era of government activism. Although Republicans routinely accuse him of being a socialist, an honest examination of his presidency must conclude that he has in fact been moderately conservative to exactly the same degree that Nixon was moderately liberal.

Conservatives understood, even before Nixon was nominated, that he wasn't a true believer. An attempted coup in favor of Ronald Reagan didn't materialize, and Nixon managed to assuage critics to his right with conservative rhetoric on law and order, personal responsibility, and decentralization, at the time code for letting the South stay segregated. Obama has been similar--liberal in rhetoric, largely conservative in substance. Andrew Sullivan remarks that Obama is " the best conservative president since Bill Clinton."

Defending Obama's record from the left is an increasingly sisyphean task. With a debt deal reportedly structured around massive spending cuts and ephemeral, promised revenue increases, he has vindicated the conservative strategy of "starving the beast," creating a pretext for dismantling the welfare state through irresponsible tax increases. The recovery remains weak and unemployment is high largely because of a stimulus that was too small, in part because of the massive political miscalculation that further stimulus could be secured later. The recovery might have been stronger had the administration properly addressed the foreclosure crisis, but its Home Affordable Modification Program has at times been worse than useless. The passage of the Affordable Care Act is a significant liberal triumph, but a vulnerable one--not only could the Supreme Court overturn the mandate, but if Obama loses in 2012 the ACA is toast. Obama had an unprecedented opportunity to balance the federal bench with liberal judicial appointees. He not only failed to nominate enough judges, he hasn't put up anything resembling a fight against Republican obstruction, not even when Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate.

Setting aside Obama's continuity with Bush on national security, and his initiation of a shiny new war without congressional authorization, his domestic policy has been defined by shifts to the right in expectations of compromises that never materialize. Racking up record deportation numbers not only failed to persuade Republicans to cooperate on comprehensive immigration reform, the president couldn't even convince his caucus to unite in favor of the DREAM Act even as a few brave Republicans crossed the aisle. Pushing a national version of Romneycare didn't attract any Republican supporters either.

The one bright spot in this administration has been its handling of civil rights, as long as you exclude domestic surveillance. The civil rights division has been restored to its original purpose. Obama's deliberate, methodical dismantling of the barriers to full equality for gays and lesbians has been admirable, even if he remains cautious on same-sex marriage. At the very least, we know that his Supreme Court nominees will not cast votes to overturn Roe v Wade. Eliminating Osama bin Laden has made America safer, but it hasn't dimmed Obama's zeal for the national security state.

But look, there's a reason why Calvin Coolidge is not my favorite president. If the debt ceiling deal is as bad as reported, Republicans will have secured significant progress in rolling back the social safety net liberals have fought for a century trying to create and preserve--and thanks to Obama, they won't even have to take the blame for it. If there's one place for the left to hold the line, it's on refusing to cut the social safety net so rich people can have lower taxes, particularly at a time when the former couldn't be more needed. If you're someone who has been desperately searching for work for months, if you lost your home to foreclosure, if you have had to watch family members torn away from you by immigration authorities, you have little to thank Barack Obama for.

I can imagine worse outcomes, I suppose, but conservative or liberal, the problem with Obama is that his record is riddled with failure--not just in holding the line on liberal accomplishments, but in addressing the very problems he was elected to solve.

*corrected

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