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Obama Was Always a Liberal, But Now He's Defending Liberalism

Much of the reaction to the president’s speech so far has taken the form: He used to be obsessed with process—with driving the rancor and cynicism out of politics—whereas today he set aside the procedural mumbo-jumbo and tipped his ideological hand. As James Fallows put it: “[I]t's almost as if he … knows he will never have to run again and hears the clock ticking on his last chance to say what he cares about.” 

There’s no question that Obama spent most of his 2,100 words today laying out what he cares about. But I don’t think that’s what makes it such a departure for him. Obama has laid out his worldview in a variety of settings, even in big thematic speeches like this one. It would be hard to read, say, his June 2008 victory speech without a sneaking suspicion the guy is a liberal. The key difference is that Obama actively defended his worldview this time, which is not something we’ve see him do on these stages. 

At the start of his first term, Obama was of the naïve if admirable view that most people don’t really disagree about the objectives of public policy, or even about the policies themselves. The problem in his mind was that our political system had become an impediment to doing what most people want done, rather than the means for accomplishing it. 

In his early speeches, Obama would assert the existence of this consensus rather than make the case for the policies it encompassed. Here, for example, is a typical riff from his 2004 Senate campaign:

[T]he American people at their core are a decent people. And they get confused sometimes. They watch Fox News, they listen to Rush Limbaugh. Or they read President Bush's press releases. … But if you sit down with them and you ask, “What do you expect out of your government, and what do you expect out of life,” it turns out their expectations are extraordinarily modest. They know they've got to work hard, to raise their families. They know that nobody's going to do it for them. But what they do expect is, if they're able and willing, they should be able to find a job that pays a living wage. That they shouldn't be bankrupt when they get sick. They should be able to send their child to a school that is comparably funded, and when that child is old enough, and they've done the work, they should be able to go to college, even if they don't come from a wealthy family, and they expect that every senior citizen should be able to retire with some dignity and respect. That's it. That's not a lot. 
And when you tell them that we could be delivering those things, just with a slight change in priorities … then people respond. 

Put simply: We basically agree on the need for good jobs, reliable health care, quality education, and a dignified retirement, and for a role for government in all of the above. The only reason it’s not happening is that people sometimes get distracted by the bloodsport that is politics. Just end the bloodsport, and the problems would very nearly solve themselves. Or as Obama put it in his first inaugural: “[W]e come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

What Obama has learned over the past four years is that we don’t actually agree on that much. A lot of people—a huge chunk of the country, in fact—emphatically disagree with him. It turns out that the bloodsport aspect of politics isn’t so much a cause of our dysfunction. It’s largely an effect—an extension of the fact that people have really strong feelings on both sides of these questions. And if you want to win some of them over, it’s not enough to raise the level of political discourse and treat one another with more civility. You’ve got to change how people feel about the underlying questions of policy and values. You’ve got to explain to them why too much income inequality is counterproductive and why the safety net is indispensable. 

The change we started to see in late 2011, when Obama kicked off a series of populist speeches after his failed negotiations with John Boehner, reflects Obama’s belated recognition of this. And that change was on full display today. Pre-2011, Obama would suggest that the need for “a basic measure of security and dignity” was a matter of consensus and then fulminate against the procedural hurtles to realizing it. Since then, he’s been much more aware of the fact that tens of millions of people disagree with what he regards as a commonsense role for government, and he’s been much more focused on defending it. Today he explained that “no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.” He added that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security don’t “sap our initiative,” as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would have it. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Those are simple enough points, but they’re powerful and can’t be made enough. 

Of course, you could argue that there wasn’t much new in Obama’s speech if it reflects an m.o. he adopted well over a year ago. But I disagree. Since his emergence on the national scene, Obama has clung to the Eisenhower-era distinction between campaigning and governing: You make your case during election season, then take down the TV ads and stump speeches when it’s over so you can get on with policymaking. Before today, it was possible to believe Obama still clung to that distinction. Yes, he’d started down this new path in the fall of 2011. But by that point the presidential campaign had effectively begun, so a campaign posture made sense. And yes, he’d kept it up during the recent lame-duck period. But, then, it was easy to see the "fiscal cliff" negotiations as an extension of the presidential campaign. 

An inaugural address is unambiguously different though. It’s the thematic roadmap to a president’s forthcoming time in office. By choosing to start his second term with a case for liberalism, Obama announced that arguing for his worldview isn’t a separate task from governing. It’s central to governing. And that’s a development you can’t cheer loudly enough.