My Perspective column: Analyzing President Obama, the centrist-turned-reluctant liberal
Back in November 2008, I made an observation about the newly elected Barack Obama on NPR's news analysis show Tell Me More:
"Any leftists that thought Barack Obama wasn't going to be a centrist president are fooling themselves," I told the crew at TMM's "Barbershop" segment, where a group of analysts, mostly men of color, chew over the issues of the week.
Obama had been elected, in part, by a wave of liberal hopefuls who assumed the first black president would stand up for climate change, economic equality, gay rights and immigration reform in the way they assumed a man excoriated by the right as a dangerous socialist might attempt.
But it took Obama more than three years to make a significant move on immigration,finally agreeing last year to hold off on deporting young illegal immigrants after insisting for some time he had no power to act without Congress. Likewise, his endorsement of gay marriage last year came after years of supporting civil unions.
If there was a theme to Obama's first term, it was his status as a reluctant liberal, dragged into more left-wing policies by slow acceptance of the reality that many conservatives would rather crash the economy than compromise with him. This came, even as conservative media outlets hysterically denounced the President as a Marxist, socialist, Communist and a lot of other super left-wing ideologies he never really gets near.
So, forgive me for a bit of skepticism as the world responds to his inauguration speech with cries that Obama's inner liberal has finally emerged.
Despite the hysteria from Republicans and conservative media, Obama has always been a centrist president whose liberal rhetoric was often backed by a pragmatism that curbed his actual policies.
That he is viewed as a near-socialist by some conservative opponents says much more about the propaganda of the right — along with a serious misunderstanding of what actually defines extreme liberal positions -- than the reality of Obama's actions. (The President is also adept at letting lefty allies presume he is liberal as they are, until they discover he isn't.)
To be sure, there was a lot for liberals to like in Obama's inaugural address. He called for income equality across gender, ensuring "our gay brothers and sisters" are treated like everyone else under the law, responding to "the threat of climate change," ending long lines to vote and finding "a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity."
But there's another prominent politician who has said much the same thing about immigration: former Florida governor and prominent GOP wise man Jeb Bush.
In a commentary he co-authored for Friday's Wall Street Journal titled "Solving the Immigration Puzzle," Jeb Bush called for comprehensive immigration reform, affirming the notion that immigrants "replenish the American spirit" while criticizing opposition to a practical path for citizenship as "shortsighted and self-defeating."
It is another example of how far America politics have shifted rightward that such ideas sound like liberal policies to some, though Bush was careful to criticize blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants currently in the United States. He also provided no specifics on how to deal with the 11 million people now living in America illegally.
There's plenty of other places where Obama is more centrist than his opponents would have anyone believe. He has not rolled back the powers of wiretapping, detention of suspected terrorists and killing of terrorists assumed by George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks.
His economic advisers, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, came from the same Wall Street crowd who tanked the economy in the first place (though the appointment of a tough former prosecutor, Mary Jo White, to head the Securities and Exchange commission is a good sign).
His highly criticized "Obamacare" health care plan wasn't the single-payer, universal system supported by the far left and by other industrialized countries.
On climate change, Obama's predecessor George W. Bush rejected international agreements calling for steep reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases. But he also promised to cut greenhouse gases by 18 percent by 2012 and stop the growth of such emissions by 2025.
Obama has promised to cut greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020 and 50 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2050. Does that seem particularly different?
Conservatives have decried Obama's "imperial presidency," saying he has instituted policies by executive fiat — telling agencies to loosen enforcement of laws he's doesn't like.
But when conservative opposition forces even a routine debt limit extension vote to the brink, Congress pushes the president to act on his own, giving him political cover from a public that has grown tired of a government too partisan to govern.
Given all the partisan fire-breathing today, it's no surprise a 2005 Harris poll found substantial numbers of Americans were confused about what political positions actually constituted liberal and conservative ideologies, concluding that liberals opposed gun control and conservatives favored affirmative action programs.
As a liberal who respects Obama's pragmatism, I hope he's learned to let his inner lefty fly more often in a fractious political world where compromise often remains a dirty word.
But our president has a long history of talking more liberally than he acts, cutting deals which disappoint his liberal base even as they enrage conservatives.
It will take a lot more than the heady rhetoric of an inauguration speech to change that track record.