As I explained here, most media sources falsely characterized the debt ceiling bill as a loss for President Obama. The American public seems to have swallowed that analysis hook, line and sinker. The question is, why? It is easy to explain why the media sold the story that way: any story with a clear winner and loser is more simple and easy to extrapolate from, thereby making it more entertaining. The better question is why Americans bought that story so easily. The answer is a wide-spread confusion about how liberal President Obama is.
In 2008, Republicans characterized Obama as the most liberal member of the Senate. This characterization was easy to believe because Obama walked around talking about “hope” and changing Washington, both of which sounded very liberal after eight years of a mostly Republican Washington.
However, Obama was never that liberal. Here is how he said he wanted to change Washington in 2006:
“I imagine [the American people] are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism with realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting.”
When Obama took office in 2009, he governed in a quite moderate way, considering the size of the majorities that Democrats held in Congress. The stimulus package (which was called for by most economists, including many conservative ones) included a large number of tax cuts. It also could reasonably have been much larger than it was. Obama increased drone strikes in Pakistan. He accelerated and took ownership of the war in Afghanistan. He endorsed a health care bill that was based on a Republican idea from the 1990s (which had been supported by both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich).
Despite all that, the idea that Obama is a liberal Democrat has stuck. The common stereotype is that Democrats always want more spending and higher taxes, whereas Republicans always want less spending and lower taxes. So, when a bill is passed that reduces the deficit by $2 trillion over ten years with no revenue increases, it is easy to assume that Obama lost. After all, Obama is a liberal Democrat, and liberal Democrats solve all problems by taxing and spending more.
Except, that analysis ignores Obama’s actual plan. As it turns out, Obama is not that liberal. He wanted those cuts. Even if he could waive a magic wand and balance the budget with tax increases alone, he wouldn’t do it. Nancy Pelosi might. Paul Krugman would. But President Obama would not.
Liberals continue to hope that Obama is as liberal as Republicans portrayed him in 2008. Why has he governed as a moderate then? The answer for many is that he is a coward: that he folds to Republican demands at the drop of a hat.
If he is a coward, why did he run for President in 2008. In early 2007, when he decided to run, he was 46 years old. He was relatively unknown. He had few national fund-raising sources. He was up against a massive force in the Democratic Party in Hillary Clinton, who had a fine-tuned political machine behind her that looked all but unbeatable. He had plenty of time to wait 4, 8 or 12 years until he was better known, had more experience and could win over more of the party establishment. What kind of coward runs in that position?
If he is a coward, why did he order SEAL Team Six into Pakistan. Nobody could assure him that bin Laden lived in that compound. What happens if he isn’t there? What happens if the Pakistanis pick up the choppers on radar and intercept them? What happens if a Pakistani military brigade floods the compound? He only had one shot at it. If he got it wrong, the Pakistanis might have kicked out the CIA completely, including the drones. What kind of coward gives that order?
President Obama is not a coward. He is a moderate. He always has been, and he always will be.
**UPDATE** After I posted this, Fareed Zakaria made a similar argument here.