At The American Conservative, Noah Millman argues that Barack Obama’s administration is the kind of small-c conservative leadership Thomas Friedman and other so-called centrists have been asking for:
[T]he Obama Administration has been a quintessentially small-”c” conservative one, in that it has tried its best to preserve the status quo in just about every area. Its health care plan aimed to achieve universality with minimal disruption to existing insurance arrangements (which is why it was a good deal for insurance companies). Its response to the financial crisis was centered on securing the financial position of the large banks. Its response to the recession centered on the combination of tax cuts and aid to the states to prevent precipitate layoffs, and it quickly pivoted from talking about stimulus to talking about reducing the long-term deficit. Its approach to foreign policy has been to try to preserve American hegemony at minimal cost.
Moreover, the Obama Administration has not tried to rein in the Executive branch’s authority (far from it), nor has it rolled back the Bush Administration’s compromises of civil liberties. It has not pushed the Fed to adopt an inflationary monetary policy – indeed, President Obama reappointed Bush’s Fed Chair, Ben Bernanke. It has not aggressively used the FHA or any other levers available to it to address household mortgage debt directly. In the core areas of policy, the goal of the Obama Administration has been the preservation of the status quo, and where the Obama Administration has sought to move longstanding Democratic priorities, it has generally done so with an eye to minimally disturbing existing economic and political arrangements.
Rod Dreher agrees with Millman, adding that he can’t really get “worked up about Obama”. He’s right. From a British perspective – in as much as such a perspective matters – the known costs of an Obama victory are certainly less than the unknown – that is, harder to predict – consequences of Romney winning this November. That’s one reason why, I suspect, David Cameron (and most other government leaders around the world) would prefer Obama to win. Change is dangerous; continuity is easier to deal with.
In many ways, not least in terms of temperament, Obama is closer to traditional north-eastern Rockefeller-Republicanism than is today’s conservative movement. That’s one reason why so many American conservatives hate Obama, of course. Rush Limbaugh’s conservatism dislikes Republican “squishes” almost as much as it abhors Democrats.
Even so, calling Obama a conservative, even of the small-c variety, is not hugely helpful since, as Daniel Larison says, practically no contemporary American conservative defines conservatism in terms of preserving the status quo or, even, in fact, as a means of managing change so it causes as little disruption as possible.
There’s a better label for Obama than conservative: Tory. The President is no kind of revolutionary. The change we can believe in is the change needed so things can remain much as they were. This is one reason why he has disappointed what remains of the Democratic left. From Gitmo to drone warfare; from protecting Wall street from the torch-and-pitchfork brigade to accepting the need for long-term deficit-reduction Obama has proved himself a very rum type of peacenik-socialist.
And as we all know by now, his landmark healthcare bill began life on the conservative side of the aisle. It is easy to imagine either Richard Nixon or George HW Bush signing it.
That’s the point, however. The conservative movement hates wets and Obama is pretty darn wet. If you think of Obama as an American kind of Tory then the otherwise laughable Republican accusation that Obama is more interested in managing American decline (whether relative or absolute) than in providing the kind of robust leadership needed for a new American century at least begins to make some kind of conceptual sense.
This posits Obama as the leader of a failed (and elitist!) establishment that must be swept aside for America to regain the swagger and muscular confidence that is her birth-right and destiny. Decline, they say, is a choice not a certainty.
All this being the case, it’s natural that a populist and radical right-wing party of the kind the GOP has become should attack Obama on these grounds and in these terms. “Retreat” from Iraq and Afghanistan is not a considered view of the best that can be achieved in less-than-ideal circumstances but, rather, a symptom that some people are prepared to embrace – that is, manage – decline. I think this a cockamamie reading of Obama’s foreign policy but I can see why it appeals to some people, including many who should know better.
Similarly, I can see how Obama’s interventions in the economy – from bailing-out Detroit to passing his stimulus package – can be seen as a massive expansion of government power even though a more judicious appraisal would conclude they were designed, sensibly or not, to minimise disruption, uncertainty and fear.
In these matters Obama’s implicit message has been “You may not like what we did – in fact, we didn’t always like it either – but trust me, you’d have liked it even less if we’d done nothing.” That may not be a pleasingly inspirational message but it’s also, I would suggest, a traditional Tory kind of view.
Even in Britain conservative is not the same as Tory (those Britons who most dislike Obama – and some do with startling ferocity – aren’t really Tories) and of course this is even more the case in the United States, where, in fact, there are precious few Tories of any kind or in any party.
If Obama had come to power in happier times he might have run a different, more expressly liberal, administration. (Then again: in happier times he might never have run for the Presidency, far less won it). But constrained by circumstance and events he’s been compelled to lead in a notable unideological fashion. Rather like one kind of old-fashioned Tory, in other words.