Back in 2008, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich wrote an article for this magazine making a conservative case for Barack Obama. While much of it was based on disgust with the warmongering and budgetary profligacy of the Republican Party under George W. Bush, which he expected to continue under 2008 Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, Bacevich thought Obama at least represented hope for ending the Iraq War and shrinking the national-security state.
I wrote a piece for the New Republic soon afterward about the Obamacon phenomenon—prominent conservatives and Republicans who were openly supporting Obama. Many saw in him a classic conservative temperament: someone who avoided lofty rhetoric, an ambitious agenda, and a Utopian vision that would conflict with human nature, real-world barriers to radical reform, and the American system of government.
Among the Obamacons were Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff; Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general; Ken Adelman, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for Reagan; Jeffrey Hart, longtime senior editor of National Review; Colin Powell, Reagan’s national security adviser and secretary of state for George W. Bush; and Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary. There were many others as well.
According to exit polls in 2008, Obama ended up with 20 percent of the conservative vote. Even in 2012, after four years of relentless conservative attacks, he still got 17 percent of the conservative vote, with 11 percent of Tea Party supporters saying they cast their ballots for Obama.
They were not wrong. In my opinion, Obama has governed as a moderate conservative—essentially as what used to be called a liberal Republican before all such people disappeared from the GOP. He has been conservative to exactly the same degree that Richard Nixon basically governed as a moderate liberal, something no conservative would deny today. (Ultra-leftist Noam Chomsky recently called Nixon “the last liberal president.”)
Here’s the proof:
One of Obama’s first decisions after the election was to keep national-security policy essentially on automatic pilot from the Bush administration. He signaled this by announcing on November 25, 2008, that he planned to keep Robert M. Gates on as secretary of defense. Arguably, Gates had more to do with determining Republican policy on foreign and defense policy between the two Bush presidents than any other individual, serving successively as deputy national security adviser in the White House, director of Central Intelligence, and secretary of defense.
Another early indication of Obama’s hawkishness was naming his rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state. During the campaign, Clinton ran well to his right on foreign policy, so much so that she earned the grudging endorsement of prominent neoconservatives such as Bill Kristol and David Brooks.
Obama, Kristol told the Washington Post in August 2007, “is becoming the antiwar candidate, and Hillary Clinton is becoming the responsible Democrat who could become commander in chief in a post-9/11 world.” Writing in the New York Times on February 5, 2008, Brooks praised Clinton for hanging tough on Iraq “through the dark days of 2005.”
Right-wing columnist Ann Coulter found Clinton more acceptable on national-security policy than even the eventual Republican nominee, Senator McCain. Clinton, Coulter told Fox’s Sean Hannity on January 31, 2008, was “more conservative than he [McCain] is. I think she would be stronger in the war on terrorism.” Coulter even said she would campaign for Clinton over McCain in a general election match up.
After Obama named Clinton secretary of state, there was “a deep sigh” of relief among Republicans throughout Washington, according to reporting by The Daily Beast’s John Batchelor. He noted that not a single Republican voiced any public criticism of her appointment.
By 2011, Republicans were so enamored with Clinton’s support for their policies that Dick Cheney even suggested publicly that she run against Obama in 2012. The irony is that as secretary of state, Clinton was generally well to Obama’s left, according to Vali Nasr’s book The Dispensable Nation. This may simply reflect her assumption of state’s historical role as the dovish voice in every administration. Or it could mean that Obama is far more hawkish than conservatives have given him credit for.
Although Obama followed through on George W. Bush’s commitment to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, in 2014 he announced a new campaign against ISIS, an Islamic militant group based in Syria and Iraq.
With the economy collapsing, the first major issue confronting Obama in 2009 was some sort of economic stimulus. Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, whose academic work at the University of California, Berkeley, frequently focused on the Great Depression, estimated that the stimulus needed to be in the range of $1.8 trillion, according to Noam Scheiber’s book The Escape Artists.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted in February 2009 with a gross cost of $816 billion. Although this legislation was passed without a single Republican vote, it is foolish to assume that the election of McCain would have resulted in savings of $816 billion. There is no doubt that he would have put forward a stimulus plan of roughly the same order of magnitude, but tilted more toward Republican priorities.
A Republican stimulus would undoubtedly have had more tax cuts and less spending, even though every serious study has shown that tax cuts are the least effective method of economic stimulus in a recession. Even so, tax cuts made up 35 percent of the budgetary cost of the stimulus bill—$291 billion—despite an estimate from Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers that tax cuts barely raised the gross domestic product $1 for every $1 of tax cut. By contrast, $1 of government purchases raised GDP $1.55 for every $1 spent. Obama also extended the Bush tax cuts for two years in 2010.
It’s worth remembering as well that Bush did not exactly bequeath Obama a good fiscal hand. Fiscal year 2009 began on October 1, 2008, and one third of it was baked in the cake the day Obama took the oath of office. On January 7, 2009, the Congressional Budget Office projected significant deficits without considering any Obama initiatives. It estimated a deficit of $1.186 trillion for 2009 with no change in policy. The Office of Management and Budget estimated in November of that year that Bush-era policies, such as Medicare Part D, were responsible for more than half of projected deficits over the next decade.
Republicans give no credit to Obama for the significant deficit reduction that has occurred on his watch—just as they ignore the fact that Bush inherited an projected budget surplus of $5.6 trillion over the following decade, which he turned into an actual deficit of $6.1 trillion, according to a CBO study—but the improvement is real.
Republicans would have us believe that their tight-fisted approach to spending is what brought down the deficit. But in fact, Obama has been very conservative, fiscally, since day one, to the consternation of his own party. According to reporting by the Washington Post and New York Times, Obama actually endorsed much deeper cuts in spending and the deficit than did the Republicans during the 2011 budget negotiations, but Republicans walked away.
Obama’s economic conservatism extends to monetary policy as well. His Federal Reserve appointments have all been moderate to conservative, well within the economic mainstream. He even reappointed Republican Ben Bernanke as chairman in 2009. Many liberals have faulted Obama for not appointing board members willing to be more aggressive in using monetary policy to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment.
Obama’s other economic appointments, such as Larry Summers at the National Economic Council and Tim Geithner at Treasury, were also moderate to conservative. Summers served on the Council of Economic Advisers staff in Reagan’s White House. Geithner joined the Treasury during the Reagan administration and served throughout the George H.W. Bush administration.
Contrary to rants that Obama’s 2010 health reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), is the most socialistic legislation in American history, the reality is that it is virtually textbook Republican health policy, with a pedigree from the Heritage Foundation and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, among others.
It’s important to remember that historically the left-Democratic approach to healthcare reform was always based on a fully government-run system such as Medicare or Medicaid. During debate on health reform in 2009, this approach was called “single payer,” with the government being the single payer. One benefit of this approach is cost control: the government could use its monopsony buying power to force down prices just as Walmart does with its suppliers.
Conservatives wanted to avoid too much government control and were adamantly opposed to single-payer. But they recognized that certain problems required more than a pure free-market solution. One problem in particular is covering people with pre-existing conditions, one of the most popular provisions in ACA. The difficulty is that people may wait until they get sick before buying insurance and then expect full coverage for their conditions. Obviously, this free-rider problem would bankrupt the health-insurance system unless there was a fix.
The conservative solution was the individual mandate—forcing people to buy private health insurance, with subsidies for the poor. This approach was first put forward by Heritage Foundation economist Stuart Butler in a 1989 paper, “A Framework for Reform,” published in a Heritage Foundation book, A National Health System for America. In it, Butler said the number one element of a conservative health system was this: “Every resident of the U.S. must, by law, be enrolled in an adequate health care plan to cover major health costs.” He went on to say:
Under this arrangement, all households would be required to protect themselves from major medical costs by purchasing health insurance or enrolling in a prepaid health plan. The degree of financial protection can be debated, but the principle of mandatory family protection is central to a universal health care system in America.
In 1991, prominent conservative health economist Mark V. Pauley also endorsed the individual mandate as central to healthcare reform. In an article in the journal Health Affairs, Pauley said:
All citizens should be required to obtain a basic level of health insurance. Not having health insurance imposes a risk of delaying medical care; it also may impose costs on others, because we as a society provide care to the uninsured. … Permitting individuals to remain uninsured results in inefficient use of medical care, inequity in the incidence of costs of uncompensated care, and tax-related distortions.
In 2004, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) endorsed an individual mandate in a speech to the National Press Club. “I believe higher-income Americans today do have a societal and personal responsibility to cover in some way themselves and their children,” he said. Even libertarian Ron Bailey, writing in Reason, conceded the necessity of a mandate in a November 2004 article titled, “Mandatory Health Insurance Now!” Said Bailey: “Why shouldn’t we require people who now get health care at the expense of the rest of us pay for their coverage themselves? … Mandatory health insurance would not be unlike the laws that require drivers to purchase auto insurance or pay into state-run risk pools.”
Among those enamored with the emerging conservative health reform based on an individual mandate was Mitt Romney, who was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002. In 2004, he put forward a state health reform plan to which he later added an individual mandate. As Romney explained in June 2005, “No more ‘free riding,’ if you will, where an individual says: ‘I’m not going to pay, even though I can afford it. I’m not going to get insurance, even though I can afford it. I’m instead going to just show up and make the taxpayers pay for me’.”
The following month, Romney emphasized his point: “We can’t have as a nation 40 million people—or, in my state, half a million—saying, ‘I don’t have insurance, and if I get sick, I want someone else to pay’.”
In 2006, Governor Romney signed the Massachusetts health reform into law, including the individual mandate. Defending his legislation in a Wall Street Journal article, he said:
I proposed that everyone must either purchase a product of their choice or demonstrate that they can pay for their own health care. It’s a personal responsibility principle.
Some of my libertarian friends balk at what looks like an individual mandate. But remember, someone has to pay for the health care that must, by law, be provided: Either the individual pays or the taxpayers pay. A free ride on government is not libertarian.
As late as 2008, Robert Moffitt of the Heritage Foundation was still defending the individual mandate as reasonable, non-ideological and nonpartisan in an article for the Harvard Health Policy Review.
So what changed just a year later, when Obama put forward a health-reform plan that was almost a carbon copy of those previously endorsed by the Heritage Foundation, Mitt Romney, and other Republicans? The only thing is that it was now supported by a Democratic president that Republicans vowed to fight on every single issue, according to Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do.
Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod later admitted that Romney’s Massachusetts plan was the “template” for Obama’s plan. “That work inspired our own health plan,” he said in 2011. But no one in the White House said so back in 2009. I once asked a senior Obama aide why. His answer was that once Republicans refused to negotiate on health reform and Obama had to win only with Democratic votes, it would have been counterproductive, politically, to point out the Obama plan’s Republican roots.
The left wing of the House Democratic caucus was dubious enough about Obama’s plan as it was, preferring a single-payer plan. Thus it was necessary for Obama to portray his plan as more liberal than it really was to get the Democratic votes needed for passage, which of course played right into the Republicans’ hands. But the reality is that ACA remains a very modest reform based on Republican and conservative ideas.
Other Rightward Policies
Below are a few other issues on which Obama has consistently tilted rightward:
Drugs: Although it has become blindingly obvious that throwing people in jail for marijuana use is insane policy and a number of states have moved to decriminalize its use, Obama continued the harsh anti-drug policy of previous administrations, and his Department of Justice continues to treat marijuana as a dangerous drug. As Time put it in 2012: “The Obama Administration is cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries and growers just as harshly as the Administration of George W. Bush did.”
National-security leaks: At least since Nixon, a hallmark of Republican administrations has been an obsession with leaks of unauthorized information, and pushing the envelope on government snooping. By all accounts, Obama’s penchant for secrecy and withholding information from the press is on a par with the worst Republican offenders. Journalist Dan Froomkin charges that Obama has essentially institutionalized George W. Bush’s policies. Nixon operative Roger Stone thinks Obama has actually gone beyond what his old boss tried to do.
Race: I think almost everyone, including me, thought the election of our first black president would lead to new efforts to improve the dismal economic condition of African-Americans. In fact, Obama has seldom touched on the issue of race, and when he has he has emphasized the conservative themes of responsibility and self-help. Even when Republicans have suppressed minority voting, in a grotesque campaign to fight nonexistent voter fraud, Obama has said and done nothing.
Gay marriage: Simply stating public support for gay marriage would seem to have been a no-brainer for Obama, but it took him two long years to speak out on the subject and only after being pressured to do so.
Corporate profits: Despite Republican harping about Obama being anti-business, corporate profits and the stock market have risen to record levels during his administration. Even those progressives who defend Obama against critics on the left concede that he has bent over backward to protect corporate profits. As Theda Skocpol and Lawrence Jacobs put it: “In practice, [Obama] helped Wall Street avert financial catastrophe and furthered measures to support businesses and cater to mainstream public opinion. … He has always done so through specific policies that protect and further opportunities for businesses to make profits.”
I think Cornell West nailed it when he recently charged that Obama has never been a real progressive in the first place. “He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit,” West said. “We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency.”
I don’t expect any conservatives to recognize the truth of Obama’s fundamental conservatism for at least a couple of decades—perhaps only after a real progressive presidency. In any case, today they are too invested in painting him as the devil incarnate in order to frighten grassroots Republicans into voting to keep Obama from confiscating all their guns, throwing them into FEMA re-education camps, and other nonsense that is believed by many Republicans. But just as they eventually came to appreciate Bill Clinton’s core conservatism, Republicans will someday see that Obama was no less conservative.
Bruce Bartlett is the author of The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform—Why We Need It and What It Will Take.