The New Progressivism: Same as the Old Progressivism?

This essay is based on the November 2009 Bradley Lecture delivered at the American Enterprise Institute.

To understand the sometimes glaring gaps between candidate Obama’s promises and President Obama’s policies, it is useful to appreciate an old tension in American progressivism between democratic aspirations and aristocratic ambitions, and how the new progressivism at whose head the president stands seeks to conceal it.

Strangely enough, during George W. Bush’s presidency, progressives fulminated against neoconservatives, who, they alleged, had learned from political philosopher Leo Strauss to hide their true opinions behind views fashioned to manipulate officeholders and persuade the public. Yet, judging by President Obama’s rhetoric and the academic sensibilities he has incorporated in his administration, progressives are enamored of what they consider to be noble lies.

No presidential candidate in living memory has more successfully put forward competing faces than Barack Obama. He was the candidate of hope and change, but also the pragmatic and post-partisan candidate. He ran a relentlessly anti-Bush and anti-Republican campaign, but also proclaimed his determination to heal wounds and bring the country, red and blue, together. He declared his dedication to a new kind of politics and styled himself a new kind of politician. But his inside men -- David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Rahm Emanuel -- were Chicago-style, brass knuckles, old school political operatives.

A year in office has compounded the contradictions. Candidate Obama ran as a resolute advocate of the Afghanistan war’s necessity and justice. Yet President Obama’s November West Point speech, announcing the much delayed but welcome decision to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, was irresolute in tone and indecisive in substance.

Candidate Obama ran as a fierce foe of Bush administration national security law policy. Yet despite a few high-profile decisions -- on enhanced interrogation, Guantánamo Bay, and trying 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in New York City federal court -- President Obama has quietly embraced much Bush policy.

Candidate Obama decried the $440 billion Bush 2008 budget deficit. Yet in 2009 President Obama promptly proposed a budget whose non-stimulus related spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office, sets the country on course for a decade of substantially greater deficits.

Candidate Obama promised cost-conscious health care reform. Whatever becomes of the Democrats' comprehensive health care reform now that Scott Brown has swept to victory in Massachusetts' special Senate race, few competent observers believe that government can cover an additional 30 million people and take on massive new administrative obligations without incurring substantial new costs.

And candidate Obama promised to bring a new tone to Washington. But from its vilification of Rush Limbaugh and its sneering dismissals of tea party protesters, to its orchestrated efforts to delegitimize Fox News and its characterization of opponents of Democrats’ health care reform legislation as mean-spirited and obstructionist, President Obama’s administration has portrayed disagreement as rooted in ignorance or malice.

The discrepancy between candidate Obama’s rhetoric and President Obama’s policies reflects more than the exaggerations and omissions typical of electoral politics. By carefully crafting the competing faces he put forward in campaign 2008, Obama aggressively cultivated ambiguity about his principles and his policies.

Apparently, Obama and his team believed that clearly explaining the ambitious changes they hoped to enact would lose the election. In fact, it is nothing new for progressives in America to recognize that they are out of step with majority sentiment. What is new is the determination to disguise that democratic deficit.