Ron Radosh

The New Yorker's Liberal Illusions about Barack Obama

With his article “The Second Term” in the current issue of The New Yorker, political reporter Ryan Lizza asks what Barack Obama would do if he were reelected. Lizza then proceeds to reveal all the illusions which he and his fellow left-liberals living in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Brooklyn’s Park Slope all share.

It is a given to Lizza that Obama will have that chance. And his answer to the question is based on his belief that once he gets reelected, Obama will prove to his fellow Americans and the world that he can become the great president that Lizza and his associates all know he was meant to be.

Most conservative political commentators argue that if Obama does succeed in getting reelected, what we will see is a conscious turn to the political left. As a president who no longer has to worry about another term in office, Obama will use his executive branch powers to put into effect what he failed to do in his first term but which he had promised in 2008: a “fundamental transformation” in the direction America is to take. That means, conservatives argue, serious steps to move the United States in the direction of a social-democratic cradle-to-grave welfare state in the European style.

Lizza will have none of this. As he writes:

There is an argument, common on the right, that if Obama is re-elected he will pursue a more ideological, even radical, agenda because he will be unbound by the moderating influence of another election. As Dick Morris, of Fox News, put it in March, “A second term for Obama would bring on a socialist nightmare hellscape as he moves further to the left.” This argument is often bolstered by noting that Obama recently told the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, that he would have “more flexibility” to pursue negotiations on missile defense “after my election.” Ed Morrissey, of the conservative blog Hot Air, warned that the comment should cause voters “to fear an Obama second term.”

Lizza rejects Morris’ logic, and argues that “a president who has won reelection can also feel less tied to his political base and more free to shift toward the political center.” And this, Lizza claims, is precisely what Obama will do. Lizza continues to argue that in a second term, Obama will initiate concrete steps he promised but was unable to move ahead with, such as finish the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians; move to implement meaningful policies to deal with the dangers of climate change; and, most importantly, implement immigration reform that will attain bipartisan support. He will also attempt a breakthrough on energy policy and take steps to create real tax reform. All of the above would have to be done in 2013, because after that year, it would be too late.

In doing the above, Lizza argues, Obama would be following in the footsteps of none other than Ronald Reagan, who “passed immigration reform, a major reform of the tax code, and an arms control treaty with the Soviets.” Reagan was successful in his endeavors, and ended his term in office with a 55 percent approval rating. For Obama to succeed depends on his showing some humility, as well as dealing with “a revitalized faction of Republican lawmakers willing to make deals with the president.” Noting that there will be a divided Congress and a continuing polarization in the nation, Lizza believes that “it seems more implausible to suppose that Obama would turn radical in his second term than that he would cool to his Democratic base.”

Lizza is correct that if Obama wins he will do so with only a slim margin of victory and will not have any kind of a mandate. Therefore, he assumes that Obama will try to convince Republicans that their tough stance did not lead to victory, and hence some of them will moderate and decide to cut deals with him.

All of this is not only pure speculation, much of it unfounded, but rests on the assumption that Obama is what he has proved to most people he is not: a moderate centrist who seeks to unify the nation around reasonable principles most Americans would support. Not a statist who has tried to move the nation further to the left than it ever has been, and hence has aroused an electorate angry with his measures that produced the Tea Party on the right and OWS on the hard left.

What Lizza leaves out of his account is Obama’s record: his fiscal irresponsibility, his decision to ignore the Bowles-Simpson Commission’s recommendations, his decision to move first for radical health care instead of a jobs program. Lizza is right when he says that “at some point this year the debate will focus on the looming fiscal crash.” What he does not show is that Obama has never done anything of a serious nature to even acknowledge the problem, nevermind offer new bold measures to address it.

Instead, Lizza compares Obama to Bill Clinton, who in his second term abandoned bold domestic programs and replaced them with a noticeable shift to the center. With Republican support (and some Democratic opposition) he passed NAFTA and introduced serious welfare reform, a conservative idea introduced first by Republicans. Dick Morris, then his advisor, called it “triangulation.” It worked, and in moving in this direction Clinton had the support of moderate Democrats in the then-important Democratic Leadership Council, of which Clinton himself had earlier been a leading member.

Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton.

While Clinton was a DLC Democrat, Obama came into office with a background as an anti-business community organizer, a supporter of radical black nationalists in his Chicago ward, and an associate of radicals, socialists, and Communists who all worked together for his election. That is the significance of Stanley Kurtz’s recent revelation that Obama had been a member of the social-democratic New Party in Chicago in 1996. As Kurtz writes:

Obama’s joining this leftist party was no reluctant concession to a marginal group just to secure elective office. Obama had been working with the New Party’s leaders for years, and their larger strategic vision was a prime example of what drew him into politics in the first place. The New Party issue is no fluke. On the contrary, it’s a reflection of Obama’s consistent and continuous life plan.

To assume that Barack Obama will move in the direction Lizza says he will is to believe that all of the signals about his belief system do not count, and that he is capable of pulling a Clinton in a second term. Clinton, to put it bluntly, was a real pragmatist and a master politician, and never was a man of the ideological left wing. As someone might say in a debate with Obama: “I know Bill Clinton, and you’re no Bill Clinton.”

Lizza’s hope that a second Obama term would begin “with major deficit reduction and serious reform of taxes and entitlements” is nothing but a pipe dream, meant to assure those drifting away from the Obama camp that the president is really a sensible moderate just waiting for the chance to screw his base. Or, you can take the word of Obama advisor David Plouffe, who assures Lizza that Democrats would of course accept entitlement reform because in a divided Congress they would have to.

There is more chance that a deal could be made if Mitt Romney wins, which is something that Lizza never addresses. He only sees movement if Obama wins and convinces Republicans — who of course he holds responsible for all failures — that they must give up “obstructionism.” Instead, Lizza serves up a new term in which, for the first time, bipartisan legislation will take place, and Republicans and Democrats together will agree on “immigration, climate change, and campaign finance.”

Note Lizza’s claim in this sentence:

If President Obama can indeed guide the parties toward an agreement that puts the federal government on a sustainable fiscal path, it would be a substantial achievement and would vindicate his early promise as a bipartisan leader. After that, he might have just one more chance to achieve a major domestic accomplishment before the next round of elections, in 2014.

The problem, of course, is the word at the beginning: “If.” That is one very large if, which is based on no evidence but the author’s wishful thinking. It assumes the man who has been the divider-in-chief and a partisan fighter would suddenly change colors and become a pragmatist in the Clinton mold.

What Ryan Lizza has given his readers, therefore, is nothing but an article taking the point of view of David Axelrod and David Plouffe and the Obama spinmeisters who desperately want Obama to be seen in this way and not as the man and president he actually is. He acknowledges that presently Obama “is emphasizing the ideological divide,” but wants us to ignore this, and to look at what the president supposedly wants. Lizza is an Obama man who believes, contrary to much evidence, that “Obama seems to be learning how to be a forceful president.” He thinks his foreign policy is one that has been successful, and he wants readers to conclude: “Whether he’ll be remembered as a great [President] depends on his reelection.” Lizza’s article is meant to be intellectual ammunition to convince wavering Democrats to forcefully support Obama’s reelection so he can have the chance to achieve greatness.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’ll vote to give Barack Obama that chance. The stakes are simply too high. Mr. Lizza, you haven’t convinced me, and frankly, I don’t suspect you will convince most of your readers.