As presumptuous as it sounds, I think I finally have Barack Obama figured out. It was the budget that did it. And damn, what a budget — probably the single most consequential liberal initiative in more than a generation: higher taxes on the rich, real help for the middle class, a serious attack on global warming, movement toward universal health care coverage and so much more. Obama may still talk the bipartisan talk, but with this budget he’s walking the big-D Democratic walk.
Yet, we liberals find ourselves far from a restful bunch. Watching Obama work, we fidget like a young groom anxiously awaiting our bride’s arrival, nervously tugging at our hair, expecting ecstasy, but also fearing the worst: could we be left standing at the altar?
It’s the small “betrayals” that stir us into panic: a stimulus package which is laden with tax cuts, even if they are much more middle class friendly than the Bush variety; a faith based initiative left standing; a less than stellar early performance in attacking Bush era secrecy; cabinet appointees who most often seem to share the same middle of the road as Jim Hightower’s “yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
But then, in the mists of our growing discontent, comes this budget. And for me anyway, suddenly everything becomes clearer. Budgets speak loudly. They are, as Jim Wallis says, moral documents — concrete expressions of our values. Which means, of course, if we are to judge the United States by the budgets of last eight years, our single most cherished national value has been making the superrich even richer.
But that was then. And, amazingly, Barack Obama is now.
So here’s what I think I’ve figured out about our young president. That the code to understanding his philosophical inscrutability is accepting that debate over whether he’s a liberal or a moderate misses the point: because he’s both. At the end of the day, Barack Obama is (as people often say about the American public as a whole) ideologically moderate but operationally liberal. Or as it might also be said, he is an ends guy instead of a means guy: willing to sell out a few cherished progressive ideals, if, in his view, doing so will help to move the ball forward on truly transformative initiatives.
He means it when he says he doesn’t want to refight the culture battles of the 60s (and why should he given that liberals have already won). In his view anyway, he has bigger fish to fry. He believes he can rewrite the political genetic structure of this nation. That goals like reducing economic inequality, fighting global warming and building a more just nation are achievable. Perhaps it’s naïve, but this greatest speech giver of our time isn’t just a talker. He wants to do big things.
So what does this mean for the liberal base of the Democratic Party, still shifting nervously as we start back down the aisle from the altar, wondering whether this new “bride” is really the person we thought we were marrying? Two words come to mind: diligence and patience: diligence in making sure that liberal values are upheld, up to and including fighting Obama tooth and nail where appropriate; but patience in not jumping too quickly to write him off based upon a few disappointments.
Speaking as an old fart (and long term political junkie) of 53, I’ve waited four decades — years often filled with bone breaking disappointments — for a president with a transformative vision for a better and more decent America. Barack Obama may or may not be able to make that vision real: God knows the obstacles will be huge. And I’m sure he’ll often disappoint me.
But I’m confident of one thing now — that the vision’s there inside him. And for me, at least, that’s worth a lot.