Four years ago, in the excited aftermath of the 2008 election, Barack Obama was widely viewed as a liberal messiah who would engineer a new era of liberal reform and cement a Democratic majority for decades to come. He would prove to be, as many pundits predicted, a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or perhaps even an Abraham Lincoln, for our time. They were not alone in saying this: Obama himself said much the same thing.
These forecasts seemed grandiose at the time; today, after four years of an Obama presidency, they look positively silly. In contrast to 2008, 2012 Obama looks less like a transformational president and more like a typically embattled politician trying to survive a tight contest for reelection. Even some of his strongest supporters are now “defining Obama down” as just another Democratic “pol” making compromises and paying off constituencies in order to keep his coalition together. Extravagant hopes have given way to a scramble for survival. Few continue to believe that Obama will establish the foundations for a new era of liberal governance. Some are beginning to point toward a more surprising turn of events: Far from bringing about a renewal of liberalism, Obama is actually presiding over its disintegration and collapse.
This is the thesis of Charles R. Kesler’s fascinating and insightful new book, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.1 Mr. Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and editor of The Claremont Review, is a well-known conservative scholar and authority on the history of liberal thought. Professor Kesler presents a critical yet nuanced portrayal of Obama and his rise to power. From his perspective as scholar and theorist, Kesler sees Obama as a conventional liberal or, better yet, as a progressive, and not as a socialist or anti-American subversive (as some of the President’s critics would have it). Viewed through a wide historical lens, Obama appears as the most recent—and perhaps the last—of a line of liberal presidents beginning with Woodrow Wilson a century ago and running through FDR to Lyndon Johnson and beyond to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. A signal virtue of this book is that it shows how the Obama presidency fits into the evolution of modern liberalism from its origins in the Progressive movement more than a century ago.1
The great political battles in the United States during the nineteenth century were never ideological contests in the modern sense but rather controversies fought over the meaning of the Constitution and the intentions of the founding fathers. Political contests over expansion, the Bank of the United States, slavery, secession, and the regulation of commerce were fought out along constitutional lines. The politicians and statesmen of that era were not divided into liberal and conservative camps; those terms had little meaning in nineteenth-century America. Abraham Lincoln was not thought of as a “liberal,” nor were slave owners derided as “conservatives.” Both sides of that controversy appealed to the Constitution or to the Declaration of Independence to defend their positions.
The Progressives introduced an ideological element into American politics by detaching their arguments from the Constitution and grounding them instead in claims about progress and historical development. Progressives (they were not yet called “liberals”) asserted that the Constitution, with its complex framework designed to limit government, was out of date in the modern age of science, industrialism, and large trusts and corporations. Constitutionalists looked backwards to the founding fathers; Progressives looked forward to a vast future of never-ending progress and change. The founding fathers and their nineteenth-century successors anchored popular government in a philosophy of natural rights; Progressives looked to different foundations in history and development. Progressives could not get rid of the Constitution, but they could reinterpret it to allow for more federal action to regulate the trusts, resolve industrial disputes, and engineer progress. Thus was born the idea of a “living Constitution,” an open-ended and flexible document readily adapted to changing conditions.
The Progressives were proponents of scientific government, not necessarily of popular or representative government. They disdained legislative bodies with their vote-trading and petty disputes over constituent interests; thus, they looked to the presidency rather than to the Congress for national leadership in the direction of reform and progress. The president spoke for the people or the nation, Congress spoke for special interests. Progressives wanted to delegate power to administrative bodies, commissions, and bureaus staffed by disinterested experts who could apply up-to-date knowledge to solve new problems. The Interstate Commerce Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Reserve Board were Progressive initiatives. The Progressives dreamed of a time when political contests among rival interests would give way to impartial administration by experts and judges trained by and recruited from the best colleges and universities in the land. Academic institutions, as Mr. Kesler points out, would go on to play a major role in the evolution of liberalism.
Professor Kesler identifies Woodrow Wilson as the chief architect of this vision in American politics, helping to lay the intellectual foundations for progressivism and then beginning to put them in place during his term as president. As a research scholar and university president, Wilson brought some of the abstract qualities of a college professor to the study of politics. He wrote an influential study of the US Congress without visiting the US Capitol. While he admired the founding fathers, he criticized them for leaving behind a constitutional structure that was disorderly and inefficient, and encouraged conflict rather than cooperation. Thus he claimed that the separation of powers in the Constitution was a mischievous invention designed to limit the powers of government and to prevent cooperation among the branches (which was partly true). Wilson wanted to bring the branches closer together through presidential leadership and responsible party government. He favored a parliamentary system like that in place in Great Britain in which the executive and legislative branches are unified under the control of a single party and led by the Prime Minister.
Most fundamentally of all, Wilson claimed that the vision of the founding fathers did not lead to progress but to endless division and factional infighting. The Constitution was a Newtonian machine designed to balance conflicting forces when what was now required was a Darwinian instrument flexible enough to evolve in response to changes in its environment. It was not necessary to change the Constitution itself in order to bring about such a fundamental change; it was only necessary for Americans to think about it in a new way. After all, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison led a revolution and wrote the Constitution in response to the challenges of their time: Why should not Americans in the twentieth century do the same? Thus Wilson and his associates in the Progressive movement looked to an intellectual revolution as the means by which Americans would liberate themselves from the constricted and obsolete doctrines of the founding fathers, and in the process free themselves from the limits the founders placed upon government.
Given his vast ambitions, Wilson could not hope to implement much of this agenda in eight short years in office. Yet he established the foundations for an influential and long-running movement based upon progress and change as a way of life, presidential leadership and executive power, trust in experts, and disdain for traditional constitutional forms. Mr. Kesler does not spend much time on Wilson’s path-breaking approach to international diplomacy, his role in the Paris Peace Conference, and his aborted personal campaign “to make the world safe for democracy.” Yet these may be understood as logical extensions from his broader philosophy that traditional forms of governance had reached a dead end and that new ones had to be built through inspired leadership.
It was FDR who began to use the term “liberalism” in place of “progressivism” in order to distinguish the New Deal from the Progressive Party that flamed out in the 1920s and, in contrast to the progressives, to associate his program with the founding ideals of the nation. It was also Roosevelt who hijacked the term from the classical liberals in order to associate it with reform and the welfare state in opposition to free markets and limited government. FDR, as Professor Kesler suggests in an illuminating chapter in the book, kept the language and rhetoric of the founders while not so subtly changing their meaning and purposes. This has also been true of the liberal presidents who have succeeded him.
The Republican victories during the 1920s demonstrated to Roosevelt just how fleeting and transient Wilson’s victories turned out to be. “Think of the great liberal achievements of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom,” he said in one of his radio addresses during the 1930s, “and how quickly they were liquidated under President Harding.” Roosevelt formulated programs (like Social Security and the Wagner Act) that had popular followings but were also grounded in the language of rights and liberty such that no one could claim that they were “un-American.” FDR paid homage to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, but also said that the basic rights outlined in that document were subject to redefinition in light of changes in the social order. Jefferson wrote about natural rights and liberty while FDR spoke of positive rights as a foundation for security. In his Second Bill of Rights, FDR outlined a vast agenda of such positive rights, including a right to adequate medical care, to a good education, to a decent home, to a “remunerative” job, and to adequate protection from “the fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” The pursuit and perfection of these rights provided modern liberalism—and the Democratic Party—with an almost unlimited agenda of reform.
Among FDR’s successors, no one tried harder to emulate him and more miserably failed to do so than Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson began his political career in the 1930s as a New Deal functionary and then as a young member of the House of Representatives. “FDR was my hero; he was like a father to me,” Johnson told a reporter during his White House years. Johnson mastered the art of using public patronage to build political support. “He wanted to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt,” according to one of his aides. “We’re in favor of a lot of things and against mighty few,” he said during his 1964 campaign, thereby giving voters a taste of things to come.
Johnson, as Professor Kesler explains, sought to complete the agenda of quantitative liberalism by passing federal health insurance programs for the aged (Medicare) and the poor (Medicaid), and expanded welfare and food stamp programs to assist the underprivileged. Yet, given the insatiable spirit of modern liberalism, Johnson was not content to rest there. In his Great Society speech, he proclaimed a new agenda of qualitative liberalism through which government would elevate the spirit and quality of life of the American people. The Great Society, he said, “is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for humanity.” Johnson launched a “war on poverty” and a campaign to end urban decay, passed civil rights bills, funded the arts and education, and gave the federal government license to enter into every area of American life.
Yet, by a cruel irony, Johnson’s high hopes and grand expectations soon turned into disappointment and tragedy as the country was torn apart by crime, riots in nearly every major urban center, and violent protests against the war in Vietnam. His vast expansion of domestic expenditures turned loose an ugly stampede for federal dollars that only incited demands for more. Far from being an era of spiritual fulfillment, the 1960s was one of anger, alienation, and escape through drugs and violence. Mr. Kesler writes that the enduring legacy of the 1960s is “the strange combination, still very much with us, of a more ambitious state and a less trusted government than ever before.” The more patronage the government handed out, the less satisfied its beneficiaries became.
If the New Deal stands out as the great triumph of modern liberalism, then the Great Society represents its signal tragedy and failure. This was the period, as Mr. Kesler writes, when “the radicalism that was latent all along in liberalism broke free of its faith in progress, science, and the democratic process itself.” Johnson’s failures arose from overreaching ambitions and the delusion that all human problems, even those of the spirit, must find solutions in politics and government programs. Yet, as the author argues, this kind of over-reaching is endemic to modern liberalism. It was already present, for example, in Wilson’s claims about progress and change and also in FDR’s unlimited agenda of positive rights. Liberalism both lives and dies off promises it cannot fulfill.
Barack Obama is the latest liberal president to attempt to harmonize grand hopes with the messy realities of programmatic reform. In this sense, he is a worthy heir to the legacy of Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, all of whom addressed the same challenge. Yet of the three, only one of them may be said to have ended his presidency on a positive note. Obama hopes to join FDR/span> as one of the successful presidents of the liberal era, but Mr. Kesler doubts his prospects for success.
Like FDR, who distinguished the New Deal from the New Freedom, Obama tried to make his break from the rancorous politics of the 1960s. He celebrates the flag, observes patriotic holidays, and praises the military. He is a solid family man. He even extolls the founding fathers, up to a point. In his view, the founders made a good start in laying down some noble principles, even if they did not live up to them and perhaps did not really believe them.
Obama was also aware that many of the bold initiatives of the 1960s were eventually discredited and, for the most part, rejected by the American people. No liberal today could possibly run for office citing the model of the Great Society. Without an ambitious programmatic agenda on which to run, Obama had little choice but to organize his campaign around “hope and change.” Few asked what exactly that might mean. One answer was that Obama himself, as a biracial and multicultural candidate, son of a Kenyan father and middle-class American mother, personified the change he and others were seeking. It was proof that America could overcome its racially scarred past. “I am the change,” as he has suggested on more than one occasion.
Here, then, according to Mr. Kesler, is one terminus of the liberal project. Where can it go beyond Barack Obama and the personal politics of hope and change? Another end point is fiscal and budgetary. With Obama’s signature health care legislation, an ambitious stimulus package, a series of trillion dollar plus deficits, and the impending retirement of the baby boomers, there is no more money left to fund further liberal projects. There is not even enough money left to fund those already in place. Will Obama’s presidency mark the end of the politics of public spending and thus the end of a movement that came into its own a full century ago with the election of Woodrow Wilson? That is a distinct possibility, and one brought into clear focus in this most illuminating and gracefully argued book.
1 I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism by Charles R. Kesler; Broadside Books, 276 pages. $25.00.