Considering the title, you might think this piece is a love letter to President Barack Obama. It’s not. On the contrary, I’m a libertarian who is on the record objecting to just about every major policy push the Obama administration has made.
Nevertheless, I think my colleagues on the center-right need to recognize what a transformative president Obama has been in an ideological sense. Barack Obama will not go down in the history books as a forgettable or ineffective commander-in-chief. To the contrary, he marks a major shift in liberal politics from the Third Way compromise era characterized by the Clinton presidency to unapologetic progressivism.
That’s not to say that Barack Obama is the first progressive president. To the contrary, there have been many — from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson. However, progressivism largely went out of style after World War II—until Obama. John F. Kennedy signed off on the largest tax cuts in American history. Jimmy Carter deregulated the airline and trucking industries. Bill Clinton enacted welfare reform, harsher crime sentences, and cracked down on immigration — not to mention Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
I can only chuckle when I hear hardcore conservatives call past Democratic presidents “leftists” or “communists.” To the contrary, many of them achieved remarkable victories for liberty.
Barack Obama’s presidency, on the other hand, is a whole different story. He’s the first president to enact universal health care into law, which has long been a goal on the left. He’s the first to frame taxes in terms of income inequality and wealth distribution. He’s the first to tackle climate change, pushing the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases.
Beyond policy, Obama marks a major rhetorical shift from a moderate liberalism that often used conservative talking points (e.g. “The era of big government is over”). Obama is unapologetically progressive, shifting the Overton Window of political possibilities towards more liberal policies.
That’s not to say that the American public has suddenly become leftist. To the contrary, Obama’s approval rating has been unremarkable for a long time now. And with Donald Trump as a serious contender for president, it’s clear that Americans still have a reactionary bone in their body. Nevertheless, Obama has shifted the discourse in the Democratic Party towards more progressive policy solutions. Bernie Sanders is an obvious example, but even Hillary Clinton — the so-called “moderate” candidate – is trying on progressive policies like opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In short, we’re going to see a much more polarized political world in the future in part because of Barack Obama (although Republicans haven’t helped). Policymakers are no longer looking to compromise; they’re looking to win.