Is Barack Obama moving to the left in his second term, and what is he risking by doing so? That's what Ron Brownstein asks in a long National Journal article, and though Brownstein is as comprehensive and careful as ever, there are some fundamental flaws in his premises. But here's what he says:
On issues from gay rights to gun control, immigration reform, and climate change—all of which he highlighted in his ringing Inaugural Address last week—Obama is now unreservedly articulating the preferences of the Democratic "coalition of the ascendant" centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially women. Across all of these issues, and many others such as the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending the ban on women in combat, Obama is displaying much less concern than most national Democratic leaders since the 1960s about antagonizing culturally conservative blue-collar, older, and rural whites, many of whom oppose them.
Near as I can tell, the only one of these issues that involves a policy shift is marriage equality, and that shift happened in Obama's first term. On everything else, he's advocating the same things he's been advocating since he got to the Senate in 2005. It's true that on gun control he went from doing nothing to trying to do something, but even in his first term he nominally supported a renewed assault weapons ban. He also supported cap and trade, even though it never went anywhere in the Senate (Nancy Pelosi muscled it through the House early in Obama's first term, no small feat), and we have no idea what steps he actually wants to take on climate change now.
Not only that, all of the policy positions Obama has taken on these issues are supported by wide majorities of the public, majorities that include plenty of white men. So it isn't as though he's staking out some ideologically radical territory. I put that in italics because although it's easy to find public opinion data that show down-the-middle ideological divides on some of these issues if you ask the questions the right way, the things Obama actually wants to do are hugely popular. For instance, on the politically charged issue of gun control, the most significant of the proposals he made, creating universal background checks, is supported by around 90 percent of voters in every poll. Around two-thirds of Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants of the kind Obama supports. If Americans had their way we'd get out of Afghanistan tomorrow, not at the end of 2014 as the administration plans. The fact that Brownstein can get Bill Galston to say Obama's alleged move to the left is a terrible idea doesn't make it true, any more than Galston's numerous panicky op-eds during the campaign warning that Obama was destroying his chances at reelection with his liberal agenda.
Nevertheless, Brownstein's explanatory point—that Obama has been liberated by his new coalition to not worry so much about what old white guys think—is basically sound, even if the coalition isn't really new (it's essentially the same coalition he won with in 2008). A Democratic party that isn't constantly terrified of what some mythical Reagan Democrat might get a bee in his bonnet about is a party that can offer a clearer identity and agenda to the public. For a long time, we've had one party that forged a clear identity, and another whose answer to everything seemed to be, "It's complicated." Well now we're getting to the point where we have two clear agendas, and the American people can choose between them. What's wrong with that?