Andrew Sullivan had a piece in The Daily Beast last week which got a lot of coverage and sparked a great deal of debate about how to assess the Obama presidency. In short, Sullivan thinks Obama’s governance style is one which may not please either liberal or conservative partisans, but will wear well and includes a number of accomplishments which will appeal to less strongly partisan voters.
Sullivan has long been an Obama supporter and much of the piece reads similarly to past arguments in favor of Obama’s governance. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic had what I think is the best take down of Sullivan, which focuses more on the weakness of Sullivan’s argument in that Sully looks only at what Obama’s “dumbest critics” have said about him, not the ones who are making valid and true points. Friedersdorf’s piece is worth reading in full, so I won’t spend time rehashing it here.
But what I do think is worth discussing is that Sullivan’s analysis is driven by the fact that Andrew Sullivan is a socially-liberal conservative. So when Sullivan writes:
To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider.
The “moderate liberalism” Sullivan describes is actually what most liberals would call conservativism. In the piece, Sullivan actually repeatedly makes the point that Obama was doing the right thing by pushing conservative policies on a number of key issues.
You’d think, listening to the Republican debates, that Obama has raised taxes. Again, this is not true. Not only did he agree not to sunset the Bush tax cuts for his entire first term, he has aggressively lowered taxes on most Americans. A third of the stimulus was tax cuts, affecting 95 percent of taxpayers; he has cut the payroll tax, and recently had to fight to keep it cut against Republican opposition.
[Obama’s] spending record is also far better than his predecessor’s. Under Bush, new policies on taxes and spending cost the taxpayer a total of $5.07 trillion. Under Obama’s budgets both past and projected, he will have added $1.4 trillion in two terms. Under Bush and the GOP, nondefense discretionary spending grew by twice as much as under Obama. Again: imagine Bush had been a Democrat and Obama a Republican. You could easily make the case that Obama has been far more fiscally conservative than his predecessor—except, of course, that Obama has had to govern under the worst recession since the 1930s, and Bush, after the 2001 downturn, governed in a period of moderate growth. It takes work to increase the debt in times of growth, as Bush did. It takes much more work to constrain the debt in the deep recession Bush bequeathed Obama.
On health care:
The great conservative bugaboo, Obamacare, is also far more moderate than its critics have claimed. The Congressional Budget Office has projected it will reduce the deficit, not increase it dramatically, as Bush’s unfunded Medicare Prescription Drug benefit did. It is based on the individual mandate, an idea pioneered by the archconservative Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, and, of course, Mitt Romney, in the past. It does not have a public option; it gives a huge new client base to the drug and insurance companies; its health-insurance exchanges were also pioneered by the right. It’s to the right of the Clintons’ monstrosity in 1993, and remarkably similar to Nixon’s 1974 proposal. Its passage did not preempt recovery efforts; it followed them.
It is, dare I say it, conservative.
In passing, Sullivan also comments on Obama’s conservative education policy:
Like Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative, it sets standards, grants incentives, and then allows individual states to experiment.
On foreign policy:
Obama’s foreign policy, like Dwight Eisenhower’s or George H.W. Bush’s, eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage. It is forged by someone interested in advancing American interests—not asserting an ideology and enforcing it regardless of the consequences by force of arms. By hanging back a little, by “leading from behind” in Libya and elsewhere, Obama has made other countries actively seek America’s help and reappreciate our role. As an antidote to the bad feelings of the Iraq War, it has worked close to perfectly.
On all of these important issues, Sullivan describes Obama as taking conservative positions. So it’s no wonder why the conservative Sullivan is happy with the President. What Sullivan does not prove effectively (and this is really where Friedersdorf is worth reading) is why Obama’s conservativism should produce enthusiasm from liberals.