Obama Transcends Ideology by Riling Both Flanks: Albert R. Hunt

Barack Obama, charges former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is “the most liberal president” in modern times, pursuing “an agenda that really is foreign to mainstream America.” Other Republicans routinely talk about the president’s “socialist” agenda.

Simultaneously, the left wing says he’s a traitor to their cause. Liberal bloggers regularly accuse him of selling out to corporate interests, claiming that he has failed to keep his campaign commitments. Former Democratic Party Chairman and ex-presidential candidate Howard Dean has echoed some of these sentiments.

A left winger who betrays left-wing causes? Ideology isn’t the ideal prism to evaluate the Obama presidency.

Agree or disagree with his policies, priorities or governing style, the 44th president is -- pick your preferred cliché -- a pragmatic progressive, an idealist without illusions (Jack Kennedy’s description of his own ideology), a liberal who will compromise to get results. He’s a little to the left of center of the country.

The past 14 months demonstrate the shallowness of the right and left criticism on most every major issue.

The health-care bill he signed last week isn’t socialism and doesn’t create a government-run health system. It leaves intact an employer-provided system and private, if more regulated, insurance. There will be a modest increase in the number of people who get government-provided health insurance; already next year, with programs like Medicare, Medicaid and military and veterans benefits, government is expected to pay for about half of the health care in America. There are few calls to repeal the benefits for the elderly, veterans, the active military or members of Congress.

Stimulus Package

The stimulus package approved last year, conservatives say, was a deficit-busting, pork-ridden boondoggle. Some stimulus was needed, say critics such as Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, but Obama could have compromised with Republicans and settled for a package about half the size of the $787 billion measure.

Yeah, he could have, and the jobless rate today probably would be well into double digits. “The relationship between fiscal stimulus and economic growth in the current environment is not linear,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com. “Halving the stimulus would have resulted in a measurably worse economy today, not just one that is half as good.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Zandi was an economic adviser to McCain.

Education Spending

Through the stimulus package and other initiatives, the Obama administration has significantly increased federal spending on education. The president has asked for $49.7 billion for education programs in 2011, a 7.5 percent jump; that includes the largest-ever increase, $3 billion, for K-12 education. For higher education, Congress on March 25 passed a financial-aid overhaul that forces banks out of the student-loan process and gives more access to Pell grants.

At the same time, the president is transcending the old argument of whether the priority in elementary and secondary education should be more money or more reform; he says both, rewarding schools and teachers that show results and punishing those that don’t through the Race to the Top program. This increased accountability has infuriated some of the teachers’ unions that were Obama backers, and an important Democratic Party constituency.

Afghanistan Policy

On national security, the neo-conservatives depict the president as a dangerously naïve, Blame-America-Firster. In his most important decision, he escalated the war in Afghanistan to the consternation of some of his party’s liberals. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the administration of President George W. Bush, isn’t turning swords into plowshares but increasing the Pentagon budget while pushing for the military reforms that predecessors such as Donald Rumsfeld avoided.

So there is some validity to the complaints of the left. Yet in the campaign, candidate Obama repeatedly stressed that success in Afghanistan was central to the war on terrorism, hardly suggesting a scaled-down approach.

True, he abandoned the public or government-fund option in the health-care plan, and resisted efforts for a bigger stimulus package.

Getting the Votes

But the contention that if only he had fought for these measures success would have been likely is dubious. The only way the stimulus package barely squeezed through was with the support of three Senate Republicans who wouldn’t have accepted a larger version. And a health-care bill with a public option would have been doomed in the Senate and the House.

Obama also accepted a compromise restricting abortion funding. The head of the National Organization for Women is livid that the health-care overhaul has been achieved “on the backs of women and at the price of women’s health.” Never mind that two of the architects of this success were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; it also may have been the only way to get a majority in Congress.

The political left confuses the Democratic majority with an ideological majority. There are 49 House Democrats from districts carried by McCain in 2008, and 13 Democratic senators from states that went Republican in the last presidential contest.

Soft on Wall Street

The most persuasive charge against Obama is that he’s been softer on Wall Street than he promised. True. Yet the slog the financial regulation bill faces in Congress doesn’t suggest the more populist approach would have fared better; House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts isn’t a shill for Wall Street.

This isn’t to suggest that Obama has struck the right balance on these issues. The health-care plan may prove more costly than advertised; the Afghanistan war could become a quagmire; and financial regulation may collapse.

There are a number of variables that will shape those outcomes. Few of them are ideological.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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