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An Odd Sort of Moderation

In his column today, E. J. Dionne pens a fawning love letter to the president — praising every aspect of his being. It is however light on evidence to support his amorous assessment. And indeed it is a guide in some respect to the fallacies which hobble the president’s outlook for success.

Dionne contends that the president “loves to engage conservatives.” But he has not done so in any meaningful way. None of their ideas for the stimulus plan were embraced; the president is bent on ramming  home healthcare through the reconciliation process; and he regularly slams conservative policy ideas, no matter how innovative, as “stale” or non-existent. It is an odd form of engagement that governs strictly on party lines.

Dionne also contends that Obama sought a “middle ground” on tough interrogation. But in fact the president was cowed by the netroot contingent, kicking open the door to a truth commission, deciding to release inflammatory photos ,and hiding behind the attorney general’s skirts on the decision to prosecute former Bush officials. It is an odd form of moderation which requires the president employ verbal gymnastics to avoid offending the most extreme elements in his party.

Obama is an “non-ideologue” we are told. But there is little in his actions to suggest that is really the case. On domestic policy, even Dionne throws in the towel.

There can be no denying that if Obama succeeds, government will play a larger role in American life because access to health care will be guaranteed by Washington and the financial system will face much tougher rules. The federal government will be influencing education and its financing more than it does now and will push the country toward reliance on a new mix of energy sources. It’s equally clear that the financing for all this will depend more heavily on taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans and that assistance to the neediest Americans will grow.

Actually, no one is going to have enough to pay for a fraction of this, which is why every one from the opinion editors of Dionne’s own paper to the CBO have denounced the Obama budget as unsustainable and reckless. As a far more sober-minded liberal, Al Hunt, explains:

The context is a looming policy and fiscal clash: Obama’s economic, energy, health-care and education initiatives are expensive, and the U.S. faces trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. . .  If it persists, this will produce one of two train wrecks: decimating his health-care and energy initiatives or imperiling a long term, fiscally sound economy.

Or both. And those “rich” people Dionne say will pay for all this include small businesses, “firms with the greatest capacity for job creation,” as his own paper points out. But Dionne’s central point is correct: Obama intends to vastly increase the size and scope of government in every aspect of our lives. Growing the share of our GDP devoted to government to historic highs and altering the relationship between government and its citizens are hardly moderate moves.

On the international front, Dionne repeats the argument that what we have is non-ideology at work, because what Obama is most concerned with is “winning friends.” (I am not sure even the Obama administration would welcome this infantile description of their approach to foreign policy.) But contrary to Dionne’s assertion, the consuming belief in his own ability to charm and cajole  foreign leaders, while ignoring their provocative actions, is the essence of ideology — the primacy of a belief system in the absence of historical evidence. This is personified in the announcement of Guantanamo’s closing — a decision made before Eric Holder visited the facility and before the Obama team figured out there is no second place to put these very dangerous terrorists.

The fixation on painting Obama as a moderate or non-ideologue, which is not unique to Dionne, is obviously grounded in his supporters’ underlying unease that he is far to the left of the American people. But actions speak louder than words. Obama will be judged not by what he or his spinners say, but what he does. And if his supporters feel compelled to shy away from a more candid defense of ultra-liberalism at home and American meekness abroad, perhaps they’ll reconsider Obama’s policy choices and honestly evaluate whether they are sustainable over time. Sooner or later the American people usually figure out what their president is up to.


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