Time for Truth in Labeling: Obama Is Not Centrist

New Pew Research analysis shows Obama is on the liberal side of the Democratic Party on most key issues.

Obama and de Blasio on the campaign trail
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
March 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Pew Re­search Cen­ter Found­ing Dir­ect­or An­drew Ko­hut wrote an im­port­ant Wash­ing­ton Post column last month high­light­ing the Demo­crat­ic drift left­ward dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Backed by dec­ades of Pew data, Ko­hut con­cluded that Demo­crats have grown just as lib­er­al as Re­pub­lic­ans have be­come more con­ser­vat­ive in re­cent years. “They are much more so­cially lib­er­al than they were even a dec­ade ago, more sup­port­ive of an act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment, more in fa­vor of in­creased reg­u­la­tion of busi­ness,” Ko­hut writes.

It’s a use­ful cor­rect­ive to the no­tion, fueled by the White House, that the Re­pub­lic­an Party alone is re­spons­ible for grid­lock in Wash­ing­ton. But Ko­hut down­plays one sig­ni­fic­ant factor that has ex­ped­ited the Demo­crat­ic po­lar­iz­a­tion: Pres­id­ent Obama him­self.

In the piece, Ko­hut in­stinct­ively la­bels the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion as cent­rist. But on all five ma­jor is­sues that di­vide the Demo­crat­ic Party’s lib­er­als and mod­er­ates — the budget de­fi­cit, in­come in­equal­ity, the en­vir­on­ment, so­cial is­sues, and Amer­ica’s role in the world — Obama is on the left­ward side.

Lib­er­als give low pri­or­ity to deal­ing with the de­fi­cit. Obama’s re­cent budget avoids tack­ling en­ti­tle­ment re­form, and he’s con­demned the GOP’s fo­cus on aus­ter­ity. As The New York Times re­ports, his $3.9 tril­lion budget “seeks to en­er­gize Demo­crat­ic voters with pop­u­list pro­pos­als like a more gen­er­ous tax cred­it for the work­ing poor, paid for with high­er taxes on the rich.” Like­wise, lib­er­als are the only polit­ic­al seg­ment in the Pew sur­vey that ex­presses ma­jor­ity sup­port for pay­ing high­er prices to help the en­vir­on­ment. Last month, Obama im­posed ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders reg­u­lat­ing high­er fuel ef­fi­ciency for trucks, and steered $1 bil­lion in his budget to tackle glob­al warm­ing. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­def­in­ite delays on ap­prov­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline is a clear sign that he’s on the left­ward side of the Demo­crat­ic di­vide.

On for­eign policy, Pew finds most lib­er­als don’t be­lieve in en­sur­ing peace through mil­it­ary strength, and a ma­jor­ity would find it ac­cept­able if an­oth­er coun­try be­came “as mil­it­ar­ily power­ful” as the United States. Obama has cut the Pentagon’s budget and has said he wants to fo­cus on na­tion-build­ing at home in­stead of abroad. His de­sire to re­duce the Amer­ic­an foot­print in the Middle East, and seek in­ter­na­tion­al con­sensus on for­eign hot spots like Syr­ia and Ukraine, put him squarely in his party’s lib­er­al flank.

The de­bate over tack­ling in­come in­equal­ity, the lead­ing cause Obama has cham­pioned in a second term, is an­oth­er im­port­ant di­vide between lib­er­als and mod­er­ates. While both sup­port gov­ern­ment ac­tion to re­duce poverty, lib­er­als are much more op­tim­ist­ic about the abil­ity of gov­ern­ment to make a mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence in the in­come gap. Lib­er­als are also more cyn­ic­al about achieve­ment than mod­er­ates, with most dis­agree­ing with the state­ment that “people can get ahead if they work hard.” It’s hard to pre­cisely pin Obama down on this is­sue, but his rhet­or­ic on in­come in­equal­ity as­sumes that there’s something fun­da­ment­ally broken with the cur­rent sys­tem lim­it­ing eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity.

Even on so­cial is­sues, sev­er­al of which have trended in his party’s fa­vor re­cently, Obama’s sup­port for a path to cit­izen­ship for il­leg­al im­mig­rants, same-sex mar­riage, and abor­tion rights put him on the Demo­crat­ic left.

Ko­hut’s ana­lys­is avoids the biggest factor ex­ped­it­ing Demo­crat­ic po­lar­iz­a­tion: the pres­id­ent’s health care law. Obama entered of­fice with a near-fili­buster-proof Demo­crat­ic su­per­ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate and his party hold­ing 59 per­cent of seats in the House. Des­pite wide­spread op­pos­i­tion, he spent im­mense polit­ic­al cap­it­al to pass health care re­form, which de­pleted his party’s mod­er­ate con­gres­sion­al wing. The Demo­crats who re­tired or lost reelec­tion in the 2010 cycle dis­pro­por­tion­ately hailed from the party’s middle. In just four years, the num­ber of mod­er­ate Blue Dogs shrank from 54 to 19 mem­bers — with three more re­tir­ing this year, and at least five oth­ers fa­cing tough reelec­tion cam­paigns.

Mean­while, in an elec­tion year where con­trol of the Sen­ate is hanging in the bal­ance, the White House is ig­nor­ing ways to mit­ig­ate dam­age for his party. Ap­prov­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline would help many of his party’s most vul­ner­able sen­at­ors, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­def­in­itely delayed a fi­nal de­cision. The White House’s con­tro­ver­sial nom­in­ee to head the Justice De­part­ment’s Civil Rights di­vi­sion, Debo Ad­e­g­bile, was re­jec­ted by sev­en Demo­crat­ic de­fect­ors, in­clud­ing two red-state sen­at­ors on the bal­lot in 2014. Obama’s 2014 cam­paign strategy to en­er­gize the base could help turn out Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters in a couple of Sen­ate battle­grounds (North Car­o­lina, Louisi­ana), but it’s a sign he’s already giv­en up on per­suad­ing white mod­er­ates in Re­pub­lic­an-friendly states.

In­deed, in un­der­stand­ing the chal­lenges vul­ner­able Demo­crats face in 2014, it’s worth re­call­ing how dif­fer­ently Obama has ap­proached his second term com­pared with Bill Clin­ton. Clin­ton’s big second-term suc­cess was sign­ing a bal­anced-budget agree­ment, work­ing with con­ser­vat­ive House Re­pub­lic­an Speak­er Newt Gin­grich. Des­pite the Mon­ica Lew­in­sky scan­dal — and be­cause of GOP over­reach — Clin­ton’s ap­prov­al rat­ing in the pre-midterm Gal­lup Poll stood at 66 per­cent. In 1998, Demo­crats picked up seats in con­ser­vat­ive North Car­o­lina (John Ed­wards) and In­di­ana (Evan Bayh), while hold­ing seats in Arkan­sas and South Car­o­lina. It’s no sur­prise that, 16 years later, Clin­ton will be cam­paign­ing for more Sen­ate Demo­crats than Obama will.

Obama has been ef­fect­ive in por­tray­ing him­self as a mod­er­ate con­sensus-build­er while gov­ern­ing in a lib­er­al dir­ec­tion. He won reelec­tion by mo­bil­iz­ing a grow­ing pro­gress­ive base, and por­tray­ing Mitt Rom­ney, one of the few re­main­ing Re­pub­lic­an mod­er­ates, as the ex­trem­ist in the race. But his polit­ic­al re­sume also in­cludes los­ing the House, with Demo­crat­ic con­trol of the Sen­ate at risk in 2014. To un­der­stand how Obama squandered the huge Demo­crat­ic con­gres­sion­al ma­jor­it­ies he in­her­ited, it’s im­port­ant to have some truth in la­beling.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of the column mis­re­por­ted the size of Obama’s 2015 budget. It is $3.9 tril­lion.

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