At the Democratic National Convention in Denver next week, Barack Obama will formally assume the undisputed leadership of his party. But in what direction will he lead it?
For many Democrats, the answer remains surprisingly unclear even after the long and fiercely contested nomination fight.
On many issues that for decades have divided Democrats--from trade and federal spending to gay rights--Obama is closer to traditional liberal positions than centrist ones. But his overarching campaign promise to work across party lines and narrow the nation's partisan, cultural, and racial divides points toward a more centrist presidency that elevates compromise over ideological purity.
Meanwhile, Obama's background as a community organizer and his exposure to market-oriented thinking during his years teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago add elements to his worldview that don't easily fit into the party's familiar debates. His status as the first African-American presidential nominee of either major party adds another unprecedented element to the mix.
For the most part, leading Republicans think that Obama represents a turn back toward the conventional liberalism that dominated the Democratic Party before Bill Clinton's presidency. Obama's agenda returns the Democrats to a "pre-Clinton party," says Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former director of strategic initiatives in George W. Bush's White House.
Many left-leaning Democrats substantially agree. Veteran liberal thinker Robert Borosage, now co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, says there is "no question" that Obama's approach rejects the aspects of Clinton's agenda and strategy that most alienated liberals. "I think the whole era of defensive rearguard politics is gone, in part because of Obama and in part by circumstance," Borosage says. "There isn't the same level of embattled defensiveness, that we have to adjust to this conservative current."
Yet during the Democratic primary, many prominent party moderates--from Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, to Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas--preferred Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Throughout the primary season, neither Obama nor Clinton principally framed the choice for voters in ideological terms--or even in policy terms, for the most part. But when the two did clash on policy, Obama usually positioned himself to Clinton's left--on issues from the Iraq war to health care.
Since clinching the nomination, though, he has conspicuously moved toward the middle by voting for a compromise on telecommunications surveillance that infuriated liberals and by indicating support for expanding offshore oil drilling as part of a broader energy plan. Each stance pitted Obama's generally liberal personal preferences against his bedrock promise to build consensus--and in both instances he came down in favor of the latter.
Seeing so many conflicting signals, even some of the Democrats' shrewdest taxonomists find it difficult to classify Obama among the party's many species--from traditional liberals, to neoliberals, New Democrats, Blue Dogs, and the shock troops of Bush-era "Net-roots" activists. "It's hard to put him squarely in any of these traditions," says liberal Robert Reich, who was Labor secretary in the Clinton administration and backed Obama during the primaries. "He borrows from some of them, but also comes up with a new synthesis."
Bill Galston, a longtime centrist Democratic analyst who supported Hillary Clinton, sees a prominent strand of traditional liberalism in Obama's genealogy but largely agrees with Reich. What direction is Obama setting for the party? "I wish I could give you a nice snappy answer," Galston said, "but I can't, and the fact that I can't by now says something."
Although Obama has expressed opinions on many, many issues, it's not clear exactly how he prioritizes his positions--or what principles unite them. At times, he seems to be drawing his campaign's words (his often-left-leaning issue positions) and music (his calls for consensus and conciliation) from different song sheets. Nearly 19 months into Obama's historic bid for the presidency, Obamaism remains very much a work in progress.
The Missing Tent Poles
Obama hasn't attached a label to his agenda, as did Bill Clinton ("New Democrat" and "Third Way") and George W. Bush ("compassionate conservatism"). Obama hasn't even identified philosophical tent poles for his thinking as Clinton did when he celebrated "opportunity, responsibility, and community." To the extent that Obama has defined a guiding ideology, it is more journey than destination, emphasizing his commitment to bridging the red-blue divide and building a grassroots political movement more than achieving specific policy goals.
Although Obama hasn't tried to distill his approach into a single catchphrase other than "change," he has demonstrated some broader policy preferences that link his individual proposals.
He portrays increased public spending on infrastructure, education, research, and other priorities as a key to prosperity, and he has emphatically sided with liberals who say that such investments should take precedence over reducing the federal deficit. Obama wants to launch a flotilla of federal programs, ranging from a massive increase in research and subsidies for alternative sources of energy ($150 billion over 10 years) to an infrastructure bank ($60 billion over 10 years), and a plan to move toward universal health insurance (at least $60 billion a year).
Obama has pledged to find offsetting spending cuts or revenue increases to pay for these programs, and his advisers insist that over time his policies will reduce the federal deficit, which is projected to reach a record $490 billion in 2009. But he has not embraced a specific deficit-reduction target. Heather Higginbottom, Obama's campaign's policy director, says, "We are not going to subjugate these major priorities facing the nation, like energy, to the balanced-budget goal." Many independent experts calculate that Obama's program would actually deepen the deficit.
The Democratic standard-bearer wants to aggressively redistribute income through the tax code. He has proposed to increase income, payroll, capital-gains, and dividend taxes on upper-income families earning at least $250,000 annually and to offer middle-income taxpayers a wide assortment of breaks headlined by a "making work pay" tax credit to offset payroll taxes. Taken together, these proposals would lower the federal taxes of more than 80 percent of families, with those near the median income level seeing reductions of about $1,100 a year, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. Obama would raise taxes on the top 1 percent of earners by an average of nearly $145,000 each.
That approach bends toward conventional Democratic economics, but Obama veers away from party orthodoxy in his receptivity to using market forces to achieve policy goals, perhaps reflecting his years at the University of Chicago, where as one writer put it, "respect for the free market is a cherished tradition." Obama wants to control emissions of carbon dioxide and the other gases linked to global warming with a cap-and-trade system intended to promote the most efficient reductions by creating a market for pollution credits. His health care plan would require insurance companies to compete in publicly structured exchanges not only with each other but also with a government-run insurance plan. "Wherever possible," Obama said in an interview last year, he wants to harness "market mechanisms to bring about change."
Closely related is his interest in behavioral economics, a school of thought that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, two of Obama's former university colleagues, popularize in their new book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Their idea is that rather than mandating certain behaviors, government should structure choices in a manner that nudges people in directions it wants them to go. The best example of this philosophy's influence on Obama is his proposal to require all employers to automatically enroll workers in retirement savings accounts unless they choose to opt out; government would further encourage middle-income workers to participate by partially matching their contributions. His health plan, similarly, would use tax subsidies to encourage the uninsured to purchase coverage--a nudge--but would not require everyone to buy insurance.
Sometimes, though, Obama advocates more of a shove than Thaler and Sunstein's nudge theory envisions. He would subject businesses to an array of federal mandates. Employers would be required to give workers seven paid sick days a year, for example. All but small companies would have to provide health insurance--or contribute to a public assistance fund to pay for the uninsured. Obama would require health insurance companies to accept all comers, regardless of their medical histories; mandate automakers to achieve annual 4 percent increases in fuel efficiency; compel oil companies to reduce the carbon content of gasoline; and require utilities to increase the share of electricity they generate from renewable sources.
His agenda also reflects what he learned as a community organizer. Obama has echoed ideas advanced by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush about increasing the involvement of faith-based and nonprofit social entrepreneurs in delivering social services. But he goes beyond them in urging new mechanisms to strengthen the capacity of these organizations. And he also envisions more of an interactive relationship, with government not only relying on these groups to deliver existing programs but also learning from them in devising new ones.
"More often than not, the next great social innovation won't be generated by the government," Obama declared in December. "There are ideas across America ... that could benefit millions of Americans if they're given the chance to grow." He advocates, for instance, replicating the Harlem Children's Zone project to provide comprehensive services to troubled communities in 20 cities. And he wants to establish a "social investment fund" to help successful nonprofit programs expand. "He sees social enterprises and other community institutions creating new kinds of break-the-mold approaches which can then help set the direction for government policy," says Jon Schnur, who co-founded the nonprofit New Leaders for New Schools and now advises Obama on education policy.
Obama's grassroots experience also colors his proposals for overhauling government. With little fanfare, he has proposed ambitious steps to increase public access to government decision makers--a perennial priority of community organizers. His proposals include ordering agencies to conduct mor e of their business in public and requiring Cabinet officers to hold periodic online town hall meetings.
On social issues, the Democratic contender tilts left, but not unreservedly so. He would allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military and would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Clinton, that explicitly frees states from recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages. (He says that states have that right without the law.) On both domestic security and criminal justice issues, such as reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences, he leans sufficiently toward individual rights that Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University law professor, says that Obama would be "our first president who is a civil libertarian." But Obama has muted discussion of new gun controls and has ruffled some feathers by persistently urging greater responsibility within the black community, particularly among fathers.
On foreign policy, he strikes a similar balance. He sides with the Left in his recoil from free trade, his commitment to withdrawal from Iraq, and his willingness to meet with the leaders of rogue nations. But Obama fits very much in the Democratic mainstream in his emphasis on rebuilding ties with allies, and he presses against the Left's preferences by pledging to increase the size of the military and the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
One way to gauge Obama's direction is to compare it with that of the last Democratic president. Clinton spent eight tumultuous years trying to steer his party toward the center and prove that ideas previously considered ideologically incompatible (such as a balanced budget and an activist government) could coexist.
Obama sounds very much like Clinton when he talks about personal responsibility or about using markets to achieve social goals. In an interview last year, Obama virtually channeled Clinton circa 1992 in declaring that he is constant in his commitment to Democratic ends but flexible on means. "On questions of policy, one of the things that I believe the Democratic Party needs to do is stay focused on our goals but be more agnostic in terms of the tools to achieve them," he said.
On some specific policies, Obama shows Clinton's mark--proposing tax credits rather than new spending programs to achieve such goals as expanding access to health care and college education. Above all, Obama's pledge to work across party lines seems a direct descendent of Clinton's promise to transcend "brain dead politics in both parties."
On many issues, however, Obama has aligned much closer to traditional liberal positions. In favoring public investment over deficit reduction and in questioning free trade, he is inverting Clinton's approach. In a major address this spring, Obama sharply criticized legislation that Clinton signed into law deregulating the banking and telecommunications industries. "Unfortunately, instead of establishing a 21st-century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one--aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight," Obama declared. During the nomination fight, Obama pointedly condemned "triangulation," the Clinton tactic that the Left equates with unprincipled capitulation.
Some Clinton-era New Democrats praise Obama, but many others second the views of Republicans such as Peter Wehner and liberals such as Bob Borosage that the senator from Illinois symbolizes a reconsideration, if not a rejection, of the changes that Clinton imposed on his party. "If you look at [Obama's] record, he has tended to lean left when push came to shove. And if that pattern holds true, it is much different than the Clinton administration," says Leon Panetta, who was Clinton's White House chief of staff.
The distance between Obama and Bill Clinton reflects both personal and systemic factors, starting with their divergent political experiences. Clinton emerged from an Arkansas environment that kept activist Democrats on a short leash; Obama was shaped by an inner-city Chicago environment in which most political pressure came from the Left. Moreover, conditions have changed since the early 1990s: Crime rates are lower and the trade deficit is higher, for instance, scrambling the politics of both issues.
But the most important shift is in the national political landscape. Clinton's agenda was shaped by the GOP's three Electoral College landslides that preceded his presidency. Clinton believed that the Democrats could advance their core priority--using government to expand personal opportunity--only by neutralizing conservative attacks that had eroded public support for government activism. That belief encouraged him to surround his initiatives with what amounted to armor plating--a commitment to deficit reduction, government reform, and personal responsibility, such as requiring welfare recipients to work. This tactic was not entirely, or even primarily, a political calculation. Clinton believed that it was the method most likely to produce substantive progress. But his approach was also based on his judgment about what the market would bear.
Obama is making a very different judgment, one that reflects a large shift in the Democratic center of gravity. Almost all of the armor plating that Clinton insisted upon was unpopular with many of the rank and file. And when Clinton left office, his party steadily drifted away from it. Since 2000, the conventional wisdom on the left, particularly among the emerging Net-roots, has been that Clinton ceded too much to the Republicans, diluting the Democratic message and hobbling the party's agenda.
That view has ascended on a wave of Democrats' rising expectations, the belief that the long-term trends in public opinion on issues from the role of government to gay rights are bending in their direction and that the immediate environment, shaped by overwhelming dissatisfaction with Bush, lopsidedly tilts toward them. Former Sen. Gary Hart, a 1984 Democratic presidential contender, expressed a view common among liberal thinkers when he recently told National Journal, "We are now at the cusp ... of the end of the Nixon-Reagan-Bush era. Obama is poised, if he is bold enough, to be a transformational president and to redefine politics for the next 20 or 30 or 40 years."
The scale of Obama's agenda and the sweep of his rhetoric suggest that he shares such assessments. Veteran GOP strategist Bill Kristol says, "I think Obama thinks he's Reagan in 1980, not Clinton in 1992." Apparently armed with an enormous sense of possibility, Obama is proposing more-ambitious expansions of government than Clinton did (especially after 1994) with fewer of the defenses that Clinton thought politically necessary. In his 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton famously declared, "The era of Big Government is over." Obama, as Borosage suggests, is wagering that "the era of Big Government being over is over."
This may be the defining gamble of Obama's campaign--and of his presidency if he wins. His expansive and expensive agenda has provided ammunition for Republicans hoping to portray him as a Big Government liberal. It's not clear whether that message will break through in an election year so far dominated by economic discontent, the desire for change, and a stark contrast between the nominees' skills and backgrounds.
Yet if Obama is elected, he will face the challenge of building legislative and public majorities for an agenda that envisions substantial increases in spending and significant tax increases on top earners--without any major commitment to reducing the federal deficit--and simultaneously advances liberal priorities on trade, Iraq, gay rights, and crime. If public attitudes have not moved as much as Democrats hope, Obama will find making such change much tougher than it now appears.
The choices that a President Obama would make in managing his electoral and legislative coalition could shape his imprint on his party more than the proposals he has issued in the campaign. Thus far, he has presented himself both as a mobilizer who can inspire a vast grassroots movement for change and as a mediator who can bridge the differences between the parties.
Those roles are not inherently incompatible: Frank Sharry, a veteran immigration-reform advocate who worked with Obama, notes that President Reagan blended the two techniques by mobilizing the public for change and then using that support to help him cut legislative deals, usually across party lines. But the two roles do differ in emphasis: Obama's rhetoric of mobilization promises change that is transformative but also contentious; his pledge of mediation signals change that is more inclusive and likely more incremental.
The latter approach portends a governing strategy that narrows differences between the parties as Clinton did in his search for a Third Way; the former anticipates a strategy that maximizes differences to sweepingly remake the policy debate and electoral landscape. "The question is whether Obama would be a Third Way leader like Clinton was, or is he really the leader of an insurgency that is going to redefine government's basic commitments," says Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek, an expert on presidential decision-making.
Obama may provide new clues when he accepts his party's nomination on Thursday night. But it won't be possible to gauge the full meaning of Obamaism unless and until Americans allow him to convert the soaring poetry of campaign rhetoric into the hard prose of governing. For now, he's a comet: dynamic and sometimes dazzling, but still distant and indistinct.
This article appears in the August 30, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.