As much as Mr. Obama presented himself as an outsider during his campaign, a lesson of this battle is that this is a president who would rather work within the system than seek to upend it. He is not the ideologue ready to stage a symbolic fight that could end in defeat; he is a former senator comfortable in dealing with the arcane rules of the Senate and prepared to accept compromise in search of a larger goal. For the most part, Democrats on Capitol Hill have stuck with him.
Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.
….In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” he wrote in July 2008, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”
I think the thing that surprises me is that anyone ever thought otherwise. Among low-information voters I understand the disconnect: they heard hopey-changiness, haven’t really gotten it, and are disappointed. But even some very high-information voters seem to be disappointed the same way, and it’s baffling. Obama’s entire career has been one of low-key, pragmatic leadership. He’s clearly a mainstream liberal, but during the Democratic primaries he was famously the least progressive (by a small margin) of the three major candidates on domestic issues. He did everything he could to avoid taking dangerously inflammatory stands on hot-button social issues. His advisors during the campaign were nearly all members in good standing of the center left. His nickname was “No Drama Obama,” and his temperament was plainly cautious, sober, and businesslike.
This was all pretty obvious during the campaign, and everybody understood it perfectly well when Republicans went crazy and started tarring him a radical socialist and a bomb-throwing revolutionary. Remember how we mocked all that stuff? But I guess that deep down, an awful lot of people were hoping that he was just play acting during the campaign, pretending to be a solid citizen while the real Obama was plotting to turn us into Sweden.
Personally, I wish Obama would articulate the liberal agenda more full-throatedly, and I wish he’d take a few more risks and push his own caucus a little harder. I’ve thought that ever since the 2008 campaign. But the fact that he hasn’t hardly comes as a surprise. He’s as liberal a president as we’ve had in 40 years, but he’s no starry-eyed idealist. Why would anyone ever have thought differently?