Obama, the far-from-radical liberal who sits slightly left of centre


LETTER FROM AMERICA:It was striking how Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was seen in the United States as nailing openly liberal theses to the cathedral door, yet in Europe the speech was hardly seen as all that radical among liberals.

The New York Times led with the headline, “Obama offers liberal vision”, saying the speech to mark the start of Obama’s second term offered “a robust articulation of modern liberalism in America”, while an editorial in the Washington Post described the address as “something approaching a liberal manifesto”.

If that speech was viewed as liberal, then – certainly to a European audience – it says more about where the US political spectrum is positioned and confirms the country’s status as a centrist-right nation. Obama may sit slightly to the left of centre in a US congressional context but he is far from a radical.

The president’s mention of Stonewall in the same sentence as Selma, the Alabama town seen as the birthplace of the black-rights movement, and Seneca Falls, where the first women’s rights convention was held, made history for being the first reference to gay rights in an inaugural address. For many of the younger generation who voted for him, the reference would have gone over their heads.

Reagan speeches

Undoubtedly, Ronald Reagan would never have contemplated including in either of his inaugural addresses a reference to five days of rioting as a result of police harassment at a New York gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Obama’s reference to those events of the summer of 1969 endorses his liberal credentials for sure. But his progressive agenda of supporting gay rights, maintaining state-funding social welfare and healthcare spending, showing tolerance to illegal immigrants and halting climate change have been adopted by centre-right governments elsewhere.

In fact, Obama would fit neatly into many European conservative parties or centre-right governments. His critics have spotted this and described the 44th president as “Obama the European”, with some detractors going even further and labelling him as a European social democrat.

There is certainly plenty in common between Obama and UK prime minister David Cameron, for example, though the Conservative leader is far closer to the centre than any of his predecessors. Obama and Cameron are kindred spirits, slick moderates with a liberal take on social issues.

Cameron is pushing ahead with legislation to legalise civil marriage and some church-approved ceremonies for gay people. He has also in the past taken a strong position on climate change with his “vote blue, go green” pre-election agenda, though recently he has been criticised for letting his green qualifications fade.

Bloomberg columnist Michael Kinsley wrote this week about Obama’s “solidly liberal vision of society and government”, saying the president’s concept of “a properly run society is closer to the European model” than that of Republican Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential candidate and Mitt Romney’s running mate last year.

Europe is perceived as politically weak in Washington and there has been a palpable sense of frustration within the Obama administration at the failure in Europe to deal decisively with the sovereign debt crisis in the euro zone. But there are striking similarities in the handling of the European and US crises; the Economist recently portrayed Obama in a French beret.

Short-term fixes

The Republicans can see the similarities and want to avoid the same painful last-minute short-term fixes afflicting Europe when resolving the US fiscal mess. This was seen this week in the GOP’s move to try to force the Democrat-led Senate to agree a long-term budget by April by threatening congressional pay if they don’t.

Of course the Republicans want the budget to include sharp cuts in healthcare and social spending by government, which the “liberal” Obama has promised to protect.

To Republicans who see government as a last resort rather than as Obama’s first resource, the president is a hard-line liberal.

But it’s easy to portray Obama as such given the range of divergent views in US politics. In a nation where the opposition defines state-sponsored healthcare as socialism, the political dial clearly starts just left of centre and ends somewhere off in the distance to the right.

A piece of advice given to this reporter on how to cover Washington was: try to explain American politics in a way that your readers will not be left completely shocked if a Republican wins.

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