WASHINGTON — In its heyday — say, the 1960s — American liberalism had an obvious identity. It was ambitious, reformist and frankly moral in its appeal to a common good that included minorities and the poor. It was praised as idealistic and attacked as utopian.
A few days after assuming the presidency, Lyndon Johnson was warned not to waste his energy on lost causes, however worthy. According to historian Robert Caro, Johnson responded: “Well, what the hell's the presidency for?” The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, Job Corps, Medicare, the Clean Air Act, the Wholesome Meat Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the Public Broadcasting Act followed.
After four years of Barack Obama and two clarifying presidential debates, it is extraordinary how shrunken liberalism has become. During his much-praised town hall performance, the president set out a second-term agenda of stunning humility. Enumerating the reasons that the “future is bright,” Obama proposed tax incentives for domestic investment, trade promotion, greater investment in solar and wind power, road and bridge construction, broader job retraining in community colleges and higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy. He added pledges to defend Medicare and Planned Parenthood against barbarian assault.
The candidate was energized; the agenda remained tired. Taken together, Obama's proposals have little ambition or thematic coherence. They add up to the Marginally Greater Society.
As the agenda of a liberal president, the silences were particularly notable. At Hofstra, Obama gave no sustained attention to poverty, though 6 million Americans have fallen below the poverty line since 2008. Obama did not mention the scandalous failure of public schools to teach minority children. He laid little emphasis, Keynesian or otherwise, on aggressively encouraging economic growth. There was no mention of global warming, though Obama once predicted that his “presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change.”
Bill Clinton had the capability of weaving an agenda of modest economic proposals into a narrative of Democratic moderation and responsibility. Obama's agenda just seems weary, following a health care victory that cost him his House majority and exhausted his political capital. It is likely that Obama's main second-term accomplishment would be the defense of his main first-term achievement — a health law that remains too unpopular to make a centerpiece of his campaign. Obama has largely set out to protect past ambitions, not project new ones.