Say this about President Barack Obama: He can keep 'em guessing. One day, he signs the most momentous piece of progressive social legislation in nearly half a century. Just a week later, he announces a plan to open up coastal areas for offshore drilling, reversing a position he held during the campaign. He may not quite have channeled Sarah Palin to chant "Drill, baby, drill!" but the news certainly brought his progressive supporters back down to earth.
With his drilling announcement, Obama made an appeal that has become almost rote. "We need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right," he said, "between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all and those who would claim it has no place." Surely he knows by now that there is no "beyond" left and right -- not in this era.
Not that Obama will stop trying. The quest for ideological transcendence is woven into his political DNA. But it's impossible to be "bipartisan" if the opposition is united against anything and everything you try to do. Obama also can't move beyond ideology if his every step is decried by his opponents as a socialist plot and by some on the left as the latest in a line of cynical sellouts.
Since even before this presidency began, we've been wondering about its true ideological character. That isn't to say we can be conclusive -- any presidency contains thousands of decisions, initiatives, and appointments, and arriving at a precise ideological metric is impossible. I refer to the presidency and not to the president, because that, in the end, is what matters. Every day sees hundreds of decisions with ideological implications made at all levels of the federal government. And though we will continue to wonder and argue about what lies in his heart, by now it appears that Obama himself is both progressive and pragmatic. He'll move toward progressive goals wherever he can, but he won't position himself beyond the possible (though his judgment of what's possible often exceeds that of most of us, and he's usually right).
That a number of Democratic factions -- some from the leftmost quarters, some merely with particular areas of interest -- have offered angry complaints about particular policy moves the administration has undertaken doesn’t prove that Obama has been at bottom a centrist compromiser. There has never been a presidency in which some portion of the president's party base did not at some point declare that it had been betrayed beyond all hope of reconciliation and might just withdraw its future support.
What makes the assessment more difficult is that Obama almost never speaks in ideological terms. He doesn't talk about his policies being liberal or progressive, and he doesn't criticize his opponents for being conservative. He may not believe that Republicans will ever actually join him in a post-ideological, good-faith common effort to solve problems (he can't possibly be that dumb), but he'll keep talking as if they might nonetheless.
The result is that unlike some before him, Obama hasn't put an ideological stake in the ground. Let's take a counter-example: Ronald Reagan. Over the course of his presidency, Reagan did many things that might seem to run counter to conservative ideology. He negotiated with the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear stockpiles. Under his watch, government increased to its largest size since World War II. He increased taxes in order to save Social Security -- just one of multiple tax increases Reagan approved (for more on this, see Joshua Greene's 2003 article, "Reagan's Liberal Legacy").
Today, the tax increases alone would mean that Reagan could not be called a conservative. After all, if there is one policy question on which all right-thinking Republicans agree, it's that taxes should never, ever be raised -- not in a time of war, not in a time of peace, not in lean times and not in fat. And just this weekend, two prominent conservatives, one a former Reagan administration official and the other the author of a Reagan hagiography, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post, arguing that Karl Rove cannot be considered a real conservative. Their rationale? George W. Bush grew the size of government, so his aide Rove cannot claim the conservative mantle. They didn't mention that while Bush did indeed grow the size of government, it was under 20 percent of gross domestic product for most of his presidency (peaking at 20.7 percent in 2008), while Reagan took government all the way to 23.5 percent of GDP.
Conservatives pretend Reagan's tax increases and sizable government spending never happened in part because Reagan never stopped making the ideological case for conservatism, regardless of where he was moving on policy. That fact, nearly as much as what he actually did, is what won him such permanent affection from conservatives. Nothing is so heartwarming as a politician who tells you that you have the right beliefs.
That assurance is not a succor Obama offers to his progressive supporters, which is why for all their excitement about him a year and a half ago, many have grown wary. Since we have a tendency to focus on what's surprising and out of the ordinary, it is the more conservative moves that are likely to catch a progressive's attention -- the maintenance of many of the Bush administration's policies on detention of terrorism suspects, or the way the public option was discarded from the health-care reform effort, or things like offshore drilling.
We could take the time to list all the progressive things the administration has done since last January, starting with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (the first piece of legislation Obama signed) and moving through health-care reform. There are literally thousands of them, most of which are almost invisible because they take place in agencies that get little public notice. Obama hasn't done anything to accomplish organized labor's longtime goal of passing the Employee Free Choice Act, for instance, but meanwhile his Labor Department is working to usher in a complete transformation of labor policy, to the great benefit of working people.
Nevertheless, most progressives won't be able to push out of their minds those times Obama disappointed them. And conservatives will see things like the drilling announcement as either too small to be relevant to an ideological assessment, or (more likely) just cover meant to distract attention from an agenda more sinister than anyone can possibly understand.
There's no perfect answer to the question of just where this administration lies ideologically. The right, however, harbors no doubts – everything they learn is confirmation of Obama's headlong march to the frontiers of socialism and beyond. Progressives, on the other hand, aren't sure how pleased they should be, even after the passage of health-care reform. And that's unlikely to change.