Timothy Egan, one of my favroite writers, has a fantastic essay in today's New York Times about political labels and the changing face of America's political landscape.
He campaigned for activist government, a less confrontational foreign policy, a business-friendly way to a green revolution. A liberal. Or, to use the term favored by those who are afraid of the lingering toxicity of that word – a progressive.
As president, he sent truckloads of money to the rescue of a sick economy, gave most working people the biggest tax cut of their lives and told a foreign audience that his country’s occasional arrogance was no excuse for reflexive anti-Americanism.
President Barack Obama is making it safe to be a liberal again – and showing how meaningless such labels can be. His first lap reveals not so much about him as it does the country he governs: a nation willing to follow a man whose policies they may not fully believe in.
He is as advertised. We are not.
When asked to pick a political label, barely one in five voters called themselves liberal in the 2008 election. Another 36 percent said they were moderate. And 38 percent self-identified as conservative. Those numbers are largely unchanged over the last two decades.
Given that makeup, the public might be expected to look harshly at a president who has all but nationalized the auto and banking industries, run up the national debt and shaken hands with a foreign leader reviled as a nuisance at best.
But there he is: with 68 percent job approval rating in the New York Times poll. This from an electorate with nearly half the voters saying Obama is more to the left than they are.
In other words, he’s not fooling anyone. Nearly 60 percent in the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll viewed him as “very or somewhat liberal.” And, with a shrug and thumbs up, they’re cheering for the new guy.
Back in January, Simon was quoted in an excellent cover story by John Heilemann in New York Magazine. The analysis, "A Party of One," touched on some of the same themes Egan did today. From Heilemann:
Obama is difficult to pigeonhole not simply because he’s new but because of the newness of the moment that he—and we—inhabit. It’s a moment dominated by an economic crisis that’s shaken bedrock beliefs about the infallibility of free markets. A moment when a revised architecture of power is arising globally, challenging America’s status as an unrivaled superpower. When the networked age has finally arrived, inciting the implosion of the broadcast paradigm that governed politics in the Industrial Age. When the country is being transfigured demographically, hurtling toward becoming a majority-minority nation.
This crescendo of forces produced Obama, made his ascension possible. Now he has a chance to shape the new era, to leave his stamp on it. “This really is the first presidency of the 21st century,” says Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN. “Those who try to hold on to twentieth-century descriptions of politics are going to be disappointed and frustrated by what’s about to emerge in the new administration, because American politics no longer fits into the old boxes—and neither does Obama. For better or worse, what he is doing is building a new box.