I went to hear George Packer, of The New Yorker fame, speak this week and was struck by his references to the Progressives; the real ones in 1905, not the vague term that people use today. Mr. Packer said President Obama is like the Progressives in his passion for clean, open government; he deeply values a political system where issues are discussed in a spirit of good faith, where leaders struggle to work out what actions are in the best interest of the country. This progressive, good government impulse is deeply embedded in the president’s “come, let us reason together” personality and is the source of his persistent attempts at bi-partisanship.
Mr. Packer also said that Obama, like the Progressives, believes in expertise and group discussion in order to reach the right policy prescriptions. Once he reached the White House, Obama moved away from his campaign “man of the people” persona and adopted a more deliberative, expert-oriented, decision-making process. While this was most evident during the three month process that preceded his decision to drastically increase military activity in Afghanistan, the same process was also used for major issues like saving the financial system, pushing for health care reform, and addressing climate change.
Unfortunately, the mere listing of those last three issues, banks-health care-climate change, highlights the dramatic way in which President Obama is not at all like the Progressives of the early 20th century. Those reformers were passionately opposed to the abuses of large corporations and banks. The “Robber Barons” were not loved by most Americans and numerous movements rose up to challenge their ability to exploit workers and consumers. In fact, by the 1912 presidential campaign between Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Howard Taft, there was a fierce debate over whether big companies should be dismantled through anti-trust court action (Taft), closely managed through a system of powerful federal regulatory agencies (TR), or some combination of the two (Wilson).
Needless to say, Mr. Obama has never considered any of those alternatives. Instead, following the advice of his experts, he, and the Democratic leadership in Congress, have attempted to purchase good behavior through open-ended bail-outs of financial firms, concessions that preserve the profits of drug and insurance companies, and subsidies and exemptions for dirty energy providers and users in the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House last summer.
Obviously, President Obama has been confronted by over-the-top belligerence from the Republican Party, but the policy choices he has made in an attempt to moderate their opposition and get cooperation from our modern day Robber Barons have added up to a demoralizing failure to promote the national interest. Millions of his strongest supporters have been reduced to stunned disbelief. Perhaps what we are seeing is the exhaustion of modern liberalism; a philosophy that was once guided by the principle of using government resources to improve the well-being of the great majority of the population. Now the party of liberalism seems to have no political strategy other than using tax money to bribe rogue corporations and banks in the vague hope of moderating their behavior.