Modern liberalism came to America in three waves, and it’s useful to think of Obama in this light.
The progressives of the early 20th century were the original liberals, developing the essential tenets of liberalism as a political doctrine. Woodrow Wilson and others argued that the Constitution was an 18th-century document, based on 18th-century notions of rights. While suited to its day, they said, it was now painfully inadequate unless interpreted in a vital new spirit.
This spirit was Darwinian and evolutionary, turning Hamilton’s “limited Constitution” into a “living Constitution” that must be able to adapt its structure and function to meet the latest social and economic challenges. To guide this evolution, to organize society’s march into the future, presidents had to cease being merely constitutional officers and become dynamic leaders of popular opinion.
Obama accepts all the major elements of this evolutionary approach to the Constitution and American government. As he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” the Constitution “is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world.”
Likewise, in his inaugural address he declared, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it worksâ€¦.”
This emphasis on what “works” is his nod to pragmatism, which he implies is almost the opposite of ideological liberalism. In fact, however, such pragmatism is part of liberalism.
What “works,” after all, depends on what you think government’s purpose is supposed to be. Pragmatism tries to distract us from those ultimate questions, while assuming liberal answers to them. Thus Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal promised “bold, persistent experimentation.” Obama’s domestic agenda betrays the same eagerness.
Liberalism’s second stage was economic. In the New Deal, the Great Society, and its sequels, liberals turned to the wholesale minting of new kinds of rights. Citizens were thus entitled to socioeconomic benefits through programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Besides these entitlements, the federal government also extended its regulatory authority to areas previously private or under state and local jurisdiction.
But this wave crested unexpectedly, and for a while, contemporary liberals seemingly lost their enthusiasm for such top-down regulation and the work of transforming privileges into rights.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of socialist economies around the globe, liberals such as Bill Clinton took a second look at the free market. He populated his Treasury department with highfliers from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. In left-leaning think tanks and even in the academy, capitalism commanded strange new respect. This rehabilitation of the market, though never more than partial, was the greatest change in American liberalism in the past 40 years. Obama absorbed it, as did many members of his new administration.
But the financial crisis and market meltdown have changed things.
It looks like 1932 again, a time for reinvigorated government activism. …
An enduring Democratic majority is not out of the question. The wild scramble to stop the economic and financial downturn may well leave America with a politically controlled economy that would corrupt the relationship between citizens and the federal government â€“ sapping entrepreneurship and encouraging new forms of dependence on the state, as in much of Europe. That would be consistent with the more socialized democracy that liberalism has been striving for ever since the Progressive Era.
Obama likes to emphasize that America is more like the world than we realize, and must become still more like it if the US is to remain the world’s leader. Despite his summoning oratory, his sense of American exceptionalism thus is far less lofty, far more constrained, than Reagan’s or FDR’s. The greatest stumbling block to Obama’s ambition is likely to be the inability of this exceptional president to persuade Americans to follow him into so unexceptional a future.