Just how liberal is Obama?

Copy of zachary toillion column headerPresident Obama is no stranger to the label of liberal. Oftentimes, it is the first word associated with the president. In February of 2012, 51 percent of registered voters described Obama as “too liberal.” In 2008, an analysis of then Sen. Obama’s voting record by the National Journal indicated he had the most liberal Senate voting record of 2007. In fact, Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 largely by running to the left of Hillary Clinton and appealing to the Democratic base. 86% of self-described liberals voted for Obama in 2012 according to exit polls conducted by The Washington Post. In 2008, 89 percent of self-identified liberals voted for Obama according to exit polls conducted by the New York Times. Conservative Bill O’Reilly has stated Obama is the “most liberal president this country has ever had.” The number of leading conservatives and elected officials have called Obama a socialist so many times that it is impossible to keep count. A 2010 poll conducted by the polling outlet Research 2000 found 63 percent of Republicans characterized Obama as a socialist. More recently, potential 2016 candidate Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) has described him as “the most liberal, most incompetent president in the White House since Jimmy Carter.”

Obama’s liberalism has been analyzed by DW-Nominate, a nonpartisan group founded to analyze the ideological beliefs of politicians. This group found Obama’s politics vary greatly with his public image. After analyzing a combination of policies, Senate votes and stated policy positions, DW-Nominate stated, “We find that President Obama is the most ideologically moderate Democratic president in the post-war period” shortly before the 2012 presidential election.

Obama has passed many policies formerly championed by Republicans. In 2009, he unsuccessfully tried to push for a plan that would cap carbon emissions. Companies that didn’t reach the cap were allowed to trade carbon credits to other companies. The plan was called cap-and-trade and part of John McCain’s 2008 platform. It was the plan championed by Republicans in the early 1990s as a conservative alternative to an outright cap on carbon emissions and was endorsed by then President George H.W Bush. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported the plan as late as 2008.

Obama’s largest accomplishment, namely health care reform, was also an idea formerly championed by Republicans. Tax subsidies, coupled with new regulations and an individual mandate were the basis of a plan put forth by the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation in 1988. In 1993, many Republicans in Congress embraced the plan as an alternative to Bill Clinton’s failed health care reform. In 1996, Republican Presidential Nominee Bob Dole ran on the plan and Gov. Mitt Romney signed a state-based version of it in 2006.

In the early 1970s Richard Nixon proposed a similar overhaul to the health care system. The plan included an employee mandate and universal coverage. The plan required individuals to purchase health insurance. Nixon tried to get bipartisan support by enlisting the help of Ted Kennedy, but he rejected the idea as being far too conservative. The reform was arguably more intrusive than the Affordable Care Act in its scope. The Medicaid expansion featured in the law was originally crafted by Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. Provisions of the bill that cut down on Medicare fraud were written by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.

Obama’s education plan is essentially a continuation of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” It relies heavily on standardized testing and awards federal money to what it deems to be the “best functioning” schools. This plan cannot be inherently described as conservative since its main focus is on national mandates, but is nonetheless a continuation of a policy literally introduced by current House Speaker John Boehner.

In terms of Social Security policy, Obama has actually been one of the most conservative presidents in American history. Obama enacted payroll tax cuts from 2009 until 2013. The payroll taxes collected by the Federal Government go directly into the Social Security Trust Fund that pays out benefits. Cutting these taxes undermines the fiscal solvency of the program. In private negotiations that were leaked to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, it was revealed that Obama had offered House Speaker John Boehner a plan in which the retirement age would gradually increase from 65 to 67 over the course of several years. In a subsequent budget negotiation with House Republicans, members of the Obama administration offered another change to Social Security-chained CPI. Social Security’s annual cost of living adjustments are calculated using the Consumer Price Index or CPI, a chained CPI assumes when prices go to high, consumers will buy cheaper products. The result of a chained CPI is a benefit cut to the Social Security cost of living adjustment. In 2009 and 2010, the Obama administration enacted a Cost of living adjustment freeze, which meant benefits to Social Security recipients remained static for two years. The only president to ever suggest more radical changes to Social Security was President George W. Bush, who unsuccessfully sought privatization.

In terms of foreign policy, Obama has largely followed in the steps of George W. Bush. He expanded the use of Bush’s drone program, authorizing eight times as many drone strikes as the Bush administration. Obama also recently used the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq as the legal basis for his attacks against ISIS. Obama has also continued the PATRIOT Act, and expanded the surveillance state just as President Bush did before him. One can argue whether or not these are truly conservative principles, but both presidents largely had the backing of the national Republican party on these issues.

In recent months, Obama has come under intense criticism for his withdrawal from Iraq, particularly from Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. In the 2012 election, Obama even took credit for the withdrawal. The truth is, Obama simply was following the US-Iraq Status of forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in 2008. It was this agreement that set the 2011 withdrawal date. In fact, the Obama administration wanted to amend the agreement to leave a residual force of soldiers in Iraq after 2011, but the proposal was rejected by the Iraqi government. Obama used a troop surge in Afghanistan starting in 2009 that was similar in scope to the one used in Iraq under Bush.Obama also has committed to leaving nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2024, a plan backed by leading neoconservatives including former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In terms of fiscal policy, Obama has signed into law the largest cuts to spending in the history of the United States, including the largest cuts to welfare programs. Upon taking office, the yearly budget deficit was $1.4 trillion. As of 2014, the federal budget deficit has been cut to $500 billion. And although these cuts originated in the Republican House of Representatives, they were ratified by the Democratic Senate after negotiations with the White House, and Obama did not veto any of the cuts. Additionally, Obama signed into law a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, with the exception of those making more than $400,000 yearly, and enacted his own tax cuts in the 2009 Stimulus. It is true that the debt has expanded under Obama, but the rate of that expansion has decreased significantly due to cuts he signed in to law.

In comparison, Ronald Reagan tripled the deficit by the end of his eight years as president. In 1986, Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to nearly $3 million illegal immigrants a path to amnesty. By comparison, the Senate Immigration Reform Bill Obama supports is quite conservative-it bears many similarities to the immigration reform championed by former president Bush, but with more funds directed to border security. Ronald Reagan also backed the Brady gun control bill passed under the Clinton administration.

Understanding Obama’s political ideology is difficult, because you have to weigh his record against his beliefs. In terms of his concrete accomplishments, nearly all of them have been moderate, arguably conservative reforms. We see Obama’s liberalism in legislation that never passed, and policy positions he never truly fought for in Congress. Obama became the first sitting president to endorse gay marriage, and pushed for a public health insurance option, he also publicly endorsed a series of reforms to gun law, including a ban on assault weapons. He has pushed for an increase in the minimum wage, and an additional $400 billion to be spent on new infrastructure projects. He has spoken out, albeit rarely, about race in America. He has also expressed support for workplace reforms to maternity leave and paid vacation. These are all liberal ideals, but they lack any actual legislation or executive orders.

This is not to say that Obama hasn’t delivered liberal reforms. Under his presidency, he put many liberal judges on the federal bench, and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that allows easier litigation for gender pay discrimination lawsuits. It was his administration that stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in Federal Court, leading to the Supreme Court ruling the Act unconstitutional. And while health care reform, was taken from Republican thinkers, it marked the realization universal healthcare-a dream liberals have had since Teddy Roosevelt first campaigned on the issue in 1902. Obama has also continued to punt on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline-a subject of angst among his liberal supporters, and unilaterally enacted reforms in the areas of immigration and environmental policy that liberals wanted. He passed the largest Stimulus in history, and a sweeping reform of how Wall Street is regulated.

To label Obama a pure liberal is simply inadequate. Dealing with Congress, and the institutional powers of the Presidency have made him a great deal more conservative than the man who ran for president in 2008. When one looks at the totality of Obama, he appears to be a moderate. He has signed a number of highly conservative pieces of legislation into law, and has proposed even more. At the same time he unilaterally enacted key liberal ideas, and passed some of them into law in his first two years in office. He has proposed a host of liberal ideals that have never become law, but at the same time offered the largest conservative reforms to Social Security in history that also never became law. Obama at his core, is a moderate president and history will see him that way.

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