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23 January 2013

Obama's Progressive Vision: A World Without Political Opposition

Let no one accuse President Obama of a lack of vision. In broad strokes, the president’s inaugural speech painted a picture of a modern progressive state, technocratic and competent, muscular in its efforts and far-reaching in scope, capable of intricate micromanagement when necessary but also willing to take big steps to fix the big problems that liberals deem in need of fixing, whatever they may be. Obama defended the entitlement system, talked up the value of public infrastructure and environmental action, and explicitly tied the nation’s greatness to its ability and willingness to undertake whatever grand—and presumably public—reform efforts Obama and his fellow liberals imagine. 

The speech seems to have pleased President Obama’s liberal supporters even more than you might normally expect—in large part because they saw Obama as openly embracing their own brand of expansive, self-assured progressivism.  The New Yorker’s David Remnick describes it as “infinitely better, more self-assured, more politically precise than his first.” It was “Barack Obama without apology—a liberal emboldened by political victory and a desire to enter the history books with a progressive agenda.” The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber says the speech marked a departure for the president, and showed that Obama is prepared to defend liberalism as a worldview. In today’s Washington Post, columnist E.J. Dionne lauds the speech as a “case for a progressive view of government, and a case for the particular things that government should do in our time.”

I wouldn’t call the speech a case for progressivism so much as an attempt to assert its victory. 

It’s true that Obama offered a vision of a bigger, bolder state. But what he didn’t offer was much of an argument for how to get there, or make it affordable and sustainable. There were no outright policy proposals in the speech, but there was an awful lot of spending squeezed between its lines. Yet except for a line about using technology to lower the cost of health care, Obama’s speech offered no hints about he’d pay for his expanded state; the words debt, deficit, and budget were notably absent from the text. 

Nor did Obama make much attempt to win over his political opponents—to convince them that the goals he laid out were worthy. Rather, the speech instead suggested that the argument was over, that he had won, and that the opposition should simply fall in line. “There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” he said. “Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.” 

That’s not an argument for liberalism so much as a statement that Obama believes the argument is over. 

I’m sure he’d like it to be, but as he knows all too well, it’s anything but. With a GOP majority in the House now and likely in 2014, the next four years may be as bitter and divisive as the first, and perhaps more so.

It’s not just Obama who knows this; his liberal supporters are equally aware. Indeed, that seems to be what frustrates many of them most: that a popular second term president should encounter any opposition to his agenda—especially from a disorganized and rag-tag band of lower chamber Republicans. You can hear it in the refrains of “Republican  obstructionism” and in the constant urging for President Obama to adopt a more combative stance with the Republicans in Congress. You can hear in so much of the commentary surrounding the recent fiscal showdowns, much of which amounted to little more than grumbling that the GOP should accept defeat and get out of President Obama's way. And you could hear it, ever so softly, in the president’s speech.

Indeed, that may tell you why his second inaugural is winning such plaudits from liberal pundits. What many of them seem to desire most is a government in which Obama and his fellow Democrats are unopposed, free to govern and spend as they please, unburdened of the task of fighting congressional Republicans, or convincing conservative skeptics. Obama’s speech didn’t just lay out a vision of a working progressive government, it offered a vision of a progressive establishment unopposed by argument, politics, or practical and fiscal constraints. And it let progressive pundits bask, if only for a brief moment, in the better world of their own imagination, one in which the government does many things—but not, apparently, contend with the opposition. 

Peter Suderman is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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