Gordon's column from today's Gulf News, published in Dubai:

The US president is probably best described as a figure of the centre-left who believes the country is drifting in his direction.


Is Barack Obama a liberal?
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News

Is US President Barack Obama a liberal? The question may seem odd, even silly; but in the context of American politics it is most certainly relevant.

The last unabashed liberal to occupy the White House was Lyndon Johnson. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the only Democrats to win the presidency in the 40 years that separate Johnson from Obama, both ran as centrists who eschewed the 'liberal' label and governed as figures of the centre-right.

Clinton, in particular, was adept at taking the ideas of the ever-dwindling number of moderate Republicans and making them his own.


In the decades since Johnson left office Republicans were so successful at turning the word 'liberal' into an epithet that few American politicians today dare use it to describe themselves.

'Progressive' is now the favoured self-description of those on America's political left (who, as a rule, are much less left-ish than their counterparts in other Western democracies).


It has long been an article of faith on the American left that right-wingers win elections by playing to Middle America's prejudices.

For at least a generation the GOP has focused its campaigns on divisive social issues and glossed over its economic policies.

These tilt heavily toward Wall Street and the rich while offering very little to the middle and lower-middle class voters who made up its base of social conservatives.


Obama sought to reverse that equation by offering centrists and less-doctrinaire conservatives reassurance on social issues such as guns and gay marriage even as he appealed directly to their economic self-interest.

A year ago it was anyone's guess whether that appeal would actually work. Then, last August, the economy plunged over a cliff and many voters who had been on the fence decided that since the disaster happened on the Republicans' watch it was time to give the Democrats a shot.

There is a better than even chance that Obama would have won the election either way but, in retrospect, the financial crisis that gripped the nation last fall probably almost guaranteed his victory.


In the weeks after last year's election Republicans comforted themselves by repeating endlessly that America remains a 'centre-right nation'.

That mantra implied that Obama's victory was a fluke and the country, really and truly, remained on their side. Many in the GOP firmly believe Obama is a 'liberal' in the pejorative sense they reserve for that word: i.e., that he is a leftist committed to raising taxes, neglecting America's military and having government run everything it can lay its hands on.

They believe the country is coming to see this and that the president's agenda, as such, is ultimately doomed.


What many in the GOP have missed is that while America may be a centre-right nation they are no longer a centre-right party.

There were many reasons why the Republicans lost last November, but one of them was a widespread perception that the party had become too narrow, too eager to exclude those who are not white and too doctrinaire in its thinking.


Meanwhile, the five months since Inauguration Day have taught us that Obama is not the liberal that his most ardent supporters and his fiercest critics alike had, albeit for quite different reasons, hoped.

In American politics the defining question of the moment is whether you agree with the GOP that Obama has gone strongly to the left on health care, climate change and the economy.

Answering yes means you believe he wants to set up a British-style national health system, to get out ahead of even the Germans and the Scandinavians on climate change and to keep the government's ownership stake in the car companies forever.


There are people who believe all these things to be true, but believing does not make it so.

Most fair-minded observers would hold that the president has staked out centre, or perhaps centre-left, positions on all of these issues.

He might, deep down, want a single-payer health system but knows he will not come close to getting it and, so, will not try. His climate change bill has been only grudgingly welcomed by the left, which believes it is too watered-down to make a real difference. Only a true ideologue could believe Obama really wants to run Chrysler and GM forever.


On all of these issues Obama has broken with the orthodoxies of the GOP-dominated recent past, but come up far short of where his most ardent supporters want him to be. He is, in short, a figure of the centre-left who believes the country is drifting in his direction.

Whether he is right or not only time will tell. It is worth remembering, however, that this is a man who went from the Illinois legislature to the White House in four years. It is fair to assume that his political instincts are unusually good.


Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who teaches Middle East Politics at the University of Vermont. As a journalist he has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades.

 


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